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Clif Cleaveland, MD
7 April 201
April 12th marks the 150th anniversary of the shelling of Fort
Sumter in Charleston Harbor. This launched our Civil War which
would kill more than 600 thousand military personnel on the two
sides. More than half the deaths resulted from disease. The death
rate was higher in the Confederate States due to more primitive
medical care. The war devastated the economy of the South for
decades. Political and emotional wounds continue to fester in parts
of the South.
As this grim anniversary approaches, some commemorations have
been launched that portray the Civil War as solely about states'
rights. Last year, secession balls were held in some Southern
states to celebrate the splitting of the Union. The Civil War was
about slavery, the greatest moral blot on our nation's history.
Tragically, slavery did not with the the Emancipation
Proclamation in 1863 nor with the end of the War in 1865. During
the period of Reconstruction when Federal law protected the rights
of freed slaves, racial violence was constrained. Upon the
withdrawal of Federal troops after 1876, many white Southerners
blamed former slaves for the harsh economic conditions in the
region. From 1877 until well after World War II, Southern states
did little to protect African Americans from forms of
re-enslavement. Full rights for African Americans would await
passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act
Douglas Blackmon, an investigative reporter for the Wall
Street Journal, won a 2009 Pulitzer Prize for "Slavery By
Another Name: the Re-Enslavement of Black Americans From the Civil
War to World War II." In a meticulously researched and
powerfully presented narrative Blackmon illuminates a history of
which most of us are unaware.
In states of the Deep South young black men and women were
rounded up for a variety of minor charges-gambling, vagrancy,
relocating without permission-and sentenced to county jails.
Sheriffs and other officials then sold or leased the prisoners to
white owners of mines, saw-mills, farms, and factories. Prisoners
were transferred from jails to wretched quarters which were the
American equivalent of Auschwitz.
The inmates worked in dangerous circumstances during the day.
Fed meager rations, they were chained in bunk-houses at night.
Short sentences would be extended by tacking on days to pay for
room and board. Minor infractions led to extended sentences,
sometimes for years, if a prisoner could survive horrendous
conditions. Beatings, torture, and even execution occurred at the
hands of sadistic white guards. Victims had no legal redress. When
they died, their bodies were tossed into unmarked graves. They
Courts seldom intervened. White juries routinely acquitted mill
and mine owners accused of mistreating their forced laborers. In
Alabama where many of the worst atrocities occurred, a U.S.
Attorney, Warren Reece, fought to bring abusers to justice in 1903.
Politicians toured the state to whip up racial hatred. Witnesses
for the prosecution were intimidated into silence. Judges either
dismissed cases or handed down trivial sentences, which were often
reversed on appeal. Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and his
successors did little to end this revised version of slavery.
Forced labor created fortunes for some white business owners in
Birmingham, Atlanta, and other Southern cities. Cotton plantations
flourished and national corporations such as U.S. Steel benefited
from cheap, slave labor.
Slowly, pressure from labor unions, exposes in Northern
newspapers, and humanitarian organizations brought an end to
post-Civil War slavery. Chain gangs and tenant farm systems would
continue for decades to exploit descendants of slaves.
This is a heart-breaking but necessary account for all
Americans, particularly residents of Southern states to read and to
ponder. Author Douglas Blackmon sets a painful history
Contact Clif Cleaveland at email@example.com.