The American Stain


Punishment in a forced labor camp
Georgia -- 1930s

Determined to bring to a blessed end my three day journey into the painful miasma explored by Douglas A. Blackmon in his extraordinary Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of African Americans from the Civil War to World War II, I chose sleep deprivation last night and read long past dawn.

I passed over not a word -- not even the Ibids in the extensive footnotes and bibliography section. Even that ostensibly dry and academic denouement had its horrors, however. I encountered citation upon citation of Congressional and federal records marking the infuriating inaction of the risibly defined protectors and defenders of the Constitution that exposed the Emancipation Proclamation (and subsequent Amendments to the Constitution regarding slavery and the role of African Americans in the United States) as the cruel joke it turned out to be for nearly a century after the ostensible "freeing of the slaves."

Nothing related to race, African Americans, American history, political "facts" or sociological issues in America will ever be the same again for me.

Perhaps I should rejoice in the fact that I am capable of being educated and instructed, of absorbing wholly new information at my advanced age of 40...

But I feel a weight upon me just now, so heavy it seems it will never be lifted; and perhaps that's as it should be. Self-congratulation for finally having attempted to learn something I ought to have sought out long ago wouldn't simply be unseemly; it would only be mildly less grotesque than that same attitude expressed by innumerable whites who still see nothing solecistic in claiming "We" fought the Civil War to end slavery, freed Europe from Hitler, defeated communism, marched for civil rights and so on.

I used to assure myself, privately, that despite the obvious shared ancestral shame of so many white Americans, my ancestors had nothing to do with that ugliness. After all, they were Irish and Scots -- northerners all, poor or working class until my mother's generation. Aside from the admittedly insidious and long-lived spectre of inveterate racism in their attitudes (which persists to this day, albeit in a milder and assuredly less overt form, in some of my mother's brothers and cousins), what evil deeds could they -- shunned and discriminated against themselves -- have perpetrated, after all? Surely my relatives and I share only the merest, microscopic percentage of the collective taint befouling all whites in America born second generation or earlier?

I don't know how many Americans are as ignorant as I have heretofore been about the true nature of American post-Civil War racism and the catastrophic effects of its systemic nature in the century that followed the war between the States. On reading Blackmon's account of his encounters with the very descendants of the victims whose stories he tells and of their profound ignorance of their recent ancestors' stories, however, I am inclined to believe the vast majority of the American public knows virtually nothing of its own recent history as pertains to African Americans and the all-pervasive white supremacist attitudes responsible for their persistent subjugation well into the latter half of the 20th century.

With that in mind, a lengthy excerpt from Douglas A. Blackmon's  work should make a good beginning for the uninitiated:

(I've inserted photographs from Blackmon's book and his website.)


INTRODUCTION
The Bricks We Stand On

   On March 30, 1908, Green Cottenham was arrested by the sheriff of Shelby County, Alabama, and charged with "vagrancy." Cottenham had committed no true crime. Vagrancy, the offense of a person not being able to prove at a given moment that he or she is employed, was a new and flimsy concoction dredged up from legal obscurity at the end of the nineteenth century by the state legislatures of Alabama and other southern states. It was capriciously enforced by local sheriffs and constables, adjudicated by mayors and notaries public, recorded haphazardly or not at all in court records, and, most tellingly in a time of massive unemployment among all southern men, was reserved almost exclusively for black men. Cottenham's offense was blackness.

   After three days behind bars, twenty-two-year-old Cottenham was found guilty in a swift appearance before the county judge and immediately sentenced to a thirty-day term of hard labor. Unable to pay the array of fees assessed on every prisoner--fees to the sheriff, the deputy, the court clerk, the witnesses--Cottenham's sentence was extended to nearly a year of hard labor.

   The next day, Cottenham, the youngest of nine children born to former slaves in an adjoining county, was sold. Under a standing arrangement between the county and a vast subsidiary of the industrial titan of the North--U.S. Steel Corporation--the sheriff turned the young man over to the company for the duration of his sentence. In return, the subsidiary, Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Company, gave the county $12 a month to pay off Cottenham's fine and fees. What the company's managers did with Cottenham, and thousands of other black men they purchased from sheriffs across Alabama, was entirely up to them.

   A few hours later, the company plunged Cottenham into the darkness of a mine called Slope No. 12--one shaft in a vast subterranean labyrinth on the edge of Birmingham known as the Pratt Mines. There, he was chained inside a long wooden barrack at night and required to spend nearly every waking hour digging and loading coal. His required daily "task" was to remove eight tons of coal from the mine. Cottenham was subject to the whip for failure to dig the requisite amount, at risk of physical torture for disobedience, and vulnerable to the sexual predations of other miners-- many of whom already had passed years or decades in their own chthonian confinement. The lightless catacombs of black rock, packed with hundreds of desperate men slick with sweat and coated in pulverized coal, must have exceeded any vision of hell a boy born in the countryside of Alabama--even a child of slaves--could have ever imagined.

   Waves of disease ripped through the population. In the month before Cottenham arrived at the prison mine, pneumonia and tuberculosis sickened dozens. Within his first four weeks, six died. Before the year was over, almost sixty men forced into Slope 12 were dead of disease, accidents, or homicide.

   Most of the broken bodies, along with hundreds of others before and after, were dumped into shallow graves scattered among the refuse of the mine.

   Others were incinerated in nearby ovens used to blast millions of tons of coal brought to the surface into coke--the carbon-rich fuel essential to U.S.

   Steel's production of iron. Forty-five years after President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation freeing American slaves, Green Cottenham and more than a thousand other black men toiled under the lash at Slope 12.

   Imprisoned in what was then the most advanced city of the South, guarded by whipping bosses employed by the most iconic example of the modern corporation emerging in the gilded North, they were slaves in all but name.

   Almost a century later, on an overgrown hillside five miles from the bustling downtown of contemporary Birmingham, I found my way to one of the only tangible relics of what Green Cottenham endured. The ground was all but completely obscured by the dense thicket. But beneath the undergrowth of privet, the faint outlines of hundreds upon hundreds of oval depressions still marked the land. Spread in haphazard rows across the forest floor, these were sunken graves of the dead from nearby prison mines once operated by U.S. Steel.2 Here and there, antediluvian headstones jutted from the foliage. No signs marked the place. No paths led to it.

   I was a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, exploring the possibility of a story asking a provocative question: What would be revealed if American corporations were examined through the same sharp lens of historical confrontation as the one then being trained on German corporations that relied on Jewish slave labor during World War II and the Swiss banks that robbed victims of the Holocaust of their fortunes? My guide that day in the summer of 2000 was an industrial archaeologist named Jack Bergstresser. Years earlier, he had stumbled across a simple iron fence surrounding a single collapsed grave during a survey of the area.

   Bergstresser was mystified by its presence at the center of what at the beginning of the twentieth century was one of the busiest confluences of industrial activity in the United States. The grave and the twisted wrought iron around it sat near what had been the intersection of two rail lines and a complex of mines, coal processing facilities, and furnaces in which thousands of men operated around the clock to generate millions of tons of coal and iron--all owned and operated by U.S. Steel at the height of its supremacy in American commerce. Bergstresser, who is white, told me he wondered if the dead here were forced laborers. He knew that African Americans had been compelled to work in Alabama mines prior to the Great Depression. His grandfather, once a coal miner himself, had told him stories of a similar burial field near the family home place south of Birmingham.

   A year later, the Journal published my long article chronicling the saga of that burial ground. No specific record of the internments survived, but mountains of archival evidence and the oral histories of old and dying African Americans nearby confirmed that most of the cemetery's inhabitants had been inmates of the labor camp that operated for three decades on the hilltop above the graveyard. Later I would discover atop a nearby rise another burial field, where Green Cottenham almost certainly was buried.

   The camp had supplied tens of thousands of men over five decades to a succession of prison mines ultimately purchased by U.S. Steel in 1907. Hundreds of them had not survived. Nearly all were black men arrested and then "leased" by state and county governments to U.S. Steel or the companies it had acquired.3 Here and in scores of other similarly crude graveyards, the final chapter of American slavery had been buried. It was a form of bondage distinctly different from that of the antebellum South in that for most men, and the relatively few women drawn in, this slavery did not last a lifetime and did not automatically extend from one generation to the next. But it was nonetheless slavery--a system in which armies of free men, guilty of no crimes and entitled by law to freedom, were compelled to labor without compensation, were repeatedly bought and sold, and were forced to do the bidding of white masters through the regular application of extraordinary physical coercion.

   The article generated a response unlike anything I had experienced as a journalist. A deluge of e-mails, letters, and phone calls arrived. White readers on the whole reacted with somber praise for a sober documentation of a forgotten crime against African Americans. Some said it heightened their understanding of demands for reparations to the descendants of antebellum slaves. Only a few expressed shock. For most, it seemed to be an account of one more important but sadly predictable bullet point in the standard indictment of historic white racism. During an appearance on National Public Radio on the day of publication, Bob Edwards, the interviewer, at one point said to me: "I guess it's really no surprise." The reactions of African Americans were altogether different. Repeatedly, they described how the article lifted a terrible burden, that the story had in some way--partly because of its sobriety and presence on the front page of the nation's most conservative daily newspaper--supplied an answer or part of one to a question so unnerving few dared ask it aloud: If not racial inferiority, what explained the inexplicably labored advance of African Americans in U.S. society in the century between the Civil War and the civil rights movement of the 1960s? The amorphous rhetoric of the struggle against segregation, the thin cinematic imagery of Ku Klux Klan bogeymen, even the horrifying still visuals of lynching, had never been a sufficient answer to these African Americans for one hundred years of seemingly docile submission by four million slaves freed in 1863 and their tens of millions of descendants. How had so large a population of Americans disappeared into a largely unrecorded oblivion of poverty and obscurity? They longed for a convincing explanation. I began to realize that beneath that query lay a haunting worry within those readers that there might be no answer, that African Americans perhaps were simply damned by fate or doomed by unworthiness. For many black readers, the account of how a form of American slavery persisted into the twentieth century, embraced by the U.S. economic system and abided at all levels of government, offered a concrete answer to that fear for the first time.

   As I began the research for this book, I discovered that while historians concurred that the South's practice of leasing convicts was an abhorrent abuse of African Americans, it was also viewed by many as an aside in the larger sweep of events in the racial evolution of the South. The brutality of the punishments received by African Americans was unjust, but not shocking in light of the waves of petty crime ostensibly committed by freed slaves and their descendants. According to many conventional histories, slaves were unable to handle the emotional complexities of freedom and had been conditioned by generations of bondage to become thieves. This thinking held that the system of leasing prisoners contributed to the intimidation of blacks in the era but was not central to it. Sympathy for the victims, however brutally they had been abused, was tempered because, after all, they were criminals. Moreover, most historians concluded that the details of what really happened couldn't be determined. Official accounts couldn't be rigorously challenged, because so few of the original records of the arrests and contracts under which black men were imprisoned and sold had survived.

   Yet as I moved from one county courthouse to the next in Alabama, Georgia, and Florida, I concluded that such assumptions were fundamentally flawed. That was a version of history reliant on a narrow range of official summaries and gubernatorial archives created and archived by the most dubious sources--southern whites who engineered and most directly profited from the system. It overlooked many of the most significant dimensions of the new forced labor, including the centrality of its role in the web of restrictions put in place to suppress black citizenship, its concomitant relationship to debt peonage and the worst forms of sharecropping, and an exponentially larger number of African Americans compelled into servitude through the most informal--and tainted--local courts. The laws passed to intimidate black men away from political participation were enforced by sending dissidents into slave mines or forced labor camps. The judges and sheriffs who sold convicts to giant corporate prison mines also leased even larger numbers of African Americans to local farmers, and allowed their neighbors and political supporters to acquire still more black laborers directly from their courtrooms. And because most scholarly studies dissected these events into separate narratives limited to each southern state, they minimized the collective effect of the decisions by hundreds of state and local county governments during at least a part of this period to sell blacks to commercial interests.

   I was also troubled by a sensibility in much of the conventional history of the era that these events were somehow inevitable. White animosity toward blacks was accepted as a wrong but logical extension of antebellum racial views. Events were presented as having transpired as a result of large--seemingly unavoidable--social and anthropological shifts, rather than the specific decisions and choices of individuals. What's more, African Americans were portrayed by most historians as an almost static component of U.S. society. Their leaders changed with each generation, but the mass of black Americans were depicted as if the freed slaves of 1863 were the same people still not free fifty years later. There was no acknowledgment of the effects of cycle upon cycle of malevolent defeat, of the injury of seeing one generation rise above the cusp of poverty only to be indignantly crushed, of the impact of repeating tsunamis of violence and obliterated opportunities on each new generation of an ever-changing population outnumbered in persons and resources.

   Yet in the attics and basements of courthouses, old county jails, storage sheds, and local historical societies, I found a vast record of original documents and personal narratives revealing a very different version of events.

   In Alabama alone, hundreds of thousands of pages of public documents attest to the arrests, subsequent sale, and delivery of thousands of African Americans into mines, lumber camps, quarries, farms, and factories. More than thirty thousand pages related to debt slavery cases sit in the files of the Department of Justice at the National Archives. Altogether, millions of mostly obscure entries in the public record offer details of a forced labor system of monotonous enormity.

   Instead of thousands of true thieves and thugs drawn into the system over decades, the records demonstrate the capture and imprisonment of thousands of random indigent citizens, almost always under the thinnest chimera of probable cause or judicial process. The total number of workers caught in this net had to have totaled more than a hundred thousand and perhaps more than twice that figure. Instead of evidence showing black crime waves, the original records of county jails indicated thousands of arrests for inconsequential charges or for violations of laws specifically written to intimidate blacks--changing employers without permission, vagrancy, riding freight cars without a ticket, engaging in sexual activity-- or loud talk--with white women. Repeatedly, the timing and scale of surges in arrests appeared more attuned to rises and dips in the need for cheap labor than any demonstrable acts of crime. Hundreds of forced labor camps came to exist, scattered throughout the South--operated by state and county governments, large corporations, small-time entrepreneurs, and provincial farmers. These bulging slave centers became a primary weapon of suppression of black aspirations. Where mob violence or the Ku Klux Klan terrorized black citizens periodically, the return of forced labor as a fixture in black life ground pervasively into the daily lives of far more African Americans. And the record is replete with episodes in which public leaders faced a true choice between a path toward complete racial repression or some degree of modest civil equality, and emphatically chose the former. These were not unavoidable events, driven by invisible forces of tradition and history.

   By 1900, the South's judicial system had been wholly reconfigured to make one of its primary purposes the coercion of African Americans to comply with the social customs and labor demands of whites. It was not coincidental that 1901 also marked the final full disenfranchisement of nearly all blacks throughout the South. Sentences were handed down by provincial judges, local mayors, and justices of the peace--often men in the employ of the white business owners who relied on the forced labor produced by the judgments. Dockets and trial records were inconsistently maintained. Attorneys were rarely involved on the side of blacks. Revenues from the neo-slavery poured the equivalent of tens of millions of dollars into the treasuries of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, Florida, Texas, North Carolina, and South Carolina--where more than 75 percent of the black population in the United States then lived.

   It also became apparent how inextricably this quasi-slavery of the twentieth century was rooted in the nascent industrial slavery that had begun to flourish in the last years before the Civil War. The same men who built railroads with thousands of slaves and proselytized for the use of slaves in southern factories and mines in the 1850s were also the first to employ forced African American labor in the 1870s. The South's highly evolved system and customs of leasing slaves from one farm or factory to the next, bartering for the cost of slaves, and wholesaling and retailing of slaves regenerated itself around convict leasing in the 1870s and 1880s. The brutal forms of physical punishment employed against "prisoners" in 1910 were the same as those used against "slaves" in 1840. The anger and desperation of southern whites that allowed such outrages in 1920 were rooted in the chaos and bitterness of 1866. These were the tendrils of the unilateral new racial compact that suffocated the aspirations for freedom among millions of American blacks as they approached the beginning of the twentieth century. I began to understand that an explicable account of the neo-slavery endured by Green Cottenham must begin much earlier than even the Civil War, and would extend far beyond the end of his life.

   Most ominous was how plainly the record showed that in the face of the rising southern white assault on black independence--even as black leaders increasingly expressed profound despair and hundreds of aching requests for help poured into federal agencies in Washington, D.C.--the vast majority of white Americans, exhausted from the long debates over the role of blacks in U.S. society, conceded that the descendants of slaves in the South would have to accept the end of freedom.

   On July 31, 1903, a letter to President Theodore Roosevelt arrived at the White House from Carrie Kinsey, a barely literate African American woman in Bainbridge, Georgia. Her fourteen-year-old brother, James Robinson, had been abducted a year earlier and sold to a plantation. Local police would take no interest. "Mr. Prassident," wrote Mrs. Kinsey, struggling to overcome the illiteracy of her world. "They wont let me have him. . . . He hase not don nothing for them to have him in chanes so I rite  to you for your help." Like the vast majority of such pleas, her letter was slipped into a small rectangular folder at the Department of Justice and tagged with a reference number, in this case 12007.4 No further action was ever recorded. Her letter lies today in the National Archives.

   A world in which the seizure and sale of a black man--even a black child--was viewed as neither criminal nor extraordinary had reemerged.

   Millions of blacks lived in that shadow--as forced laborers or their family members, or African Americans in terror of the system's caprice. The practice would not fully recede from their lives until the dawn of World War II, when profound global forces began to touch the lives of black Americans for the first time since the era of the international abolition movement a century earlier, prior to the Civil War.

   That the arc of Green Cottenham's life led from a birth in the heady afterglow of emancipation to his degradation at Slope No. 12 in 1908 was testament to the pall progressing over American black life. But his voice, and that of millions of others, is almost entirely absent from the vast record of the era. Unlike the victims of the Jewish Holocaust, who were on the whole literate, comparatively wealthy, and positioned to record for history the horror that enveloped them, Cottenham and his peers had virtually no capacity to preserve their memories or document their destruction. The black population of the United States in 1900 was in the main destitute and illiterate. For the vast majority, no recordings, writings, images, or physical descriptions survive. There is no chronicle of girlfriends, hopes, or favorite songs of the dead in a Pratt Mines burial field. The entombed there are utterly mute, the fact of their existence as fragile as a scent in wind.

   That silence was an agonizing frustration in the writing of this book-- especially in light of how richly documented were the lives of the whites most interconnected to those events. But as I sifted more deeply into the fragmented details of an almost randomly chosen man named Green Cottenham and the place and people of his upbringing, the contours of an archetypal story gradually appeared. I found the facts of a narrative of a group of common slave owners named Cottingham and common slaves who called themselves versions of the same name; of the industrial slavery that presaged the forced labor of a quarter century later; of an African ancestor named Scipio who had been thrust into the frontier of the antebellum South; of the family he produced during slavery and beyond; of the roots of the white animosities that steeped the place and era of Green Cottenham's birth; of the obliterating forces that levered upon him and generations of his family. Still, how could the account of this vast social wound be woven around the account of a single, anonymous man who by every modern measure was inconsequential and unvoiced? Eventually I recognized that this imposed anonymity was Green's most authentic and compelling dimension.

   Retracing the steps from the location of the prison at Slope No. 12 to the boundaries of the burial field, considering even without benefit of his words the stifled horror he and thousands of others must have felt as they descended through the now-lost passageway to the mine, I came to understand that Cottenham belonged as the central figure of this narrative. The slavery that survived long past emancipation was an offense permitted by the nation, perpetrated across an enormous region over many years and involving thousands of extraordinary characters. Some of that story is in fact lost, but every incident in this book is true. Each character was a real person. Every direct quotation comes from a sworn statement or a record documented at the time. I try to tell the story of many places and states and the realities of what happened to millions of people. But as much as practicable, I have chosen to orient this narrative toward one family and its descendants, to one section of the state most illustrative of its breadth and injury, and to one forgotten black man, Green Cottenham. The absence of his voice rests at the center of this book.

Thanks to Blackmon's exhaustive accounting of this sordid, shameful history and his references to historical documents as well as writings by others who have in the past attempted to tell the truth about American history, we now have no excuse for ignorance. Slavery by Another Name's extensive bibliography lists a plethora of books, articles and documents available to those who would know still more.

(I am particularly interested in finding W. E. B. Dubois's The Quest of the Silver Fleece and John Spivak's Georgia Nigger. Both men chose to use fiction to depict the horrors of  the re-enslavement of African Americans in the south, and Blackmon's excerpts and descriptions of those two novels intimate a deep and powerful experience for readers who choose to continue their education.)

I am tempted now to apply my not-inconsiderable talents in the art of outraged invective to communicate further the cataclysmic destruction wrought upon African Americans (to this very day, I might add) by the sheer evils of the southern states' deliberate re-enslavement of the vast majority of blacks after the Civil War ostensibly conferred on them their "freedom" from bondage. I think, however, that to do so would be the height of self-indulgence; no amount of righteous indignation on my part can adequately convey the monumentality of what Blackmon exposes. I also see no need to add more than my desultory description and reactions; the excerpt provides more than ample evidence of what awaits readers.

I would, however, like to touch on a subject -- the often proposed and equally as often dismissed topic of Reparations -- to which Blackmon chooses to give only cursory attention... Though perhaps wisely so; perhaps it would require a preternatural fortitude of imagination, if not intellectual capacity, to ask of newcomers to this overwhelmingly difficult task  -- of learning about and accepting this radically different history than they've heretofore been taught -- that they immediately assent to the essential morality of at least contemplating what reparations ought to be made to the people whose present circumstances are a direct result of that history.

Having doled out a mere taste of that history here, however, I feel no such compunctions. The topic of reparation must arise as a natural consequence of having one's blinders stripped away and coming to grips with the stark realities:

It is inarguable fact that if not for the enslavement of tens of thousands of African Americans between 1865 and 1945, the United States (and the southern states in particular) would never have accumulated the wealth and power it came to hold by the time of its entry onto the world stage as a "super-power." To the involuntary labour of those thousands the United States owes the construction of railroads, the emergence and eventual dominance of the steel and coal industries -- and, to wit, its rapid rise in the Industrial age.

So, too, do the wealthiest of families and corporations in existence this very day; the accumulation of wealth and power by countless prominent, powerful and obscenely wealthy American families was steeped in the blood of the post-Civil War slaves they conscripted into their businesses.

in my experience, the invariable and unvarying argument against reparations appeals to the unfairness of asking payment or penance from those who did not commit the actual sins. How is it fair, they demand, to force the descendants of the sinners to pay the penalty for those sinners?

Never once have I heard the appropriate and logical response: Where is the fairness in demanding that the descendants of the victims simply accept the bitter, enduring price of those sins? Opponents of reparations decry what they view as penalising the blameless to heal wounds perpetrated long before they were alive. But inevitably they disregard completely the other side of that tarnished coin. They also ignore completely the fact that were it not for the crimes of the ancestors, the wealth of this nation and its pre-eminent upper class citizens would not exist anyway.

I'll leave it to better minds than mine to argue the particulars, to formulate suggestions that would provide the morally and ethically necessary solutions to the virulent inequities suffered to this day by the recent descendants of the enslaved African Americans of the late 19th and early 20th century. Unschooled as I am in even the rudimentary aspects of this vastly complex and bedeviling issue, I am not arrogant enough to claim insight into the possibilities.

I am, however, ashamed, appalled and sufficiently aware of just how much I and my white family tree have benefitted -- directly -- from the sins of my American heritage. The degrees may vary, but assigning those degrees amounts to counting angels on pinheads; the undeniable reality is that every element of this country's economic and educational progress is inextricably linked to the herculean sacrifice of thousands of enslaved, tortured, maimed and murdered African Americans -- and that the bulk of said progress has benefitted the progeny of the very criminals who exacted that sacrifice.

So though I do not venture the ways and means that reparation ought take, I now believe, emphatically and passionately, that reparations must be made.

Politically, the timing of this revelation of mine couldn't be worse. Given what I now know of the widespread hatred of black Americans that existed and was given widespread and often legal quarter until very recently, I cannot any longer deny that racism and bigotry of that strength must still flourish throughout American society. I now better understand the particularly entrenched racism of the South, whose citizens are re-infected with it generation after generation.

Long as I may to believe that only vestigial traces remain, eyes once opened cannot again close. One has only to visit some of the hate sites that pock the Internet and read the abhorrent hate-speech on them to know that Senator Barack Obama's nomination and campaign for the Presidency of this country have already emboldened the vilest and most subtle of racists alike.

Fear of providing the monstrous in our midst yet another conceptual bludgeon to pass amongst themselves may tempt many to silently hope this historic and barrier-shattering moment in our national experience may take as its model the quiet, nonthreatening Model Negro route.

Perhaps there is some validity to the suggestion that such epochal events must necessarily come in on little cat feet; not for nothing is the name of Booker T. Washington far better recognised in white society than that of his more "militant,""uppity" and "arrogant" counterpart, the aforementioned W. E. B. Dubois, or the achievements of Martin Luther King, Jr. more widely acknowledged, accepted and praised than those of Malcolm X (though in his defense and to his eternal credit, King himself  had far more in common with Malcolm X and Dubois than whites today, let alone of his era, would like to remember. His legacy has fallen prey to the Model Negro Myth in spite of evidence that, were he alive today and saying exactly what he said in the civil rights era, King would likely be as vilified as the much-maligned Rev. Jeremiah Wright has been today -- and, indeed, King was so vilified in his day).

I would argue, however, that although this campaign season is probably not a good time to begin agitating for reparations for African Americans, the days of practicing the time-honoured tradition of keeping our heads down and waiting for change to come to us has long since passed.

Further, the same resolute commitment to demanding change from the bigoted few and dragging them into the age of enlightenment must also be applied to the issue of gay civil rights. When the issue of equal marriage rights finally comes before the Supreme Court of the United States of America, we must be prepared for a morally pusillanimous -- if not outright deliberately praetorian -- version of another Plessy V. Ferguson manoeuvre. Should today's Court attempt to enshrine in this country's federal statutes the "gay marriage" equivalent of that 1896 Court's contemptible appeasement of its era's bigotry, we will be morally obligated to refuse to legitimise such venality in the guise of legal wisdom.

"Justice delayed is justice denied." Not until this morning did I ever have even an approximate comprehension of the depth and breadth of truth in that statement.

Tags: Douchebaggery (all tags)

Comments

64 Comments

Painful but worth it.

Reading the book, that is.

by Maryscott OConnor 2008-06-05 11:22AM | 0 recs
I know

I felt exactly the same way when I finished reading "Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee".  There is an alternate American history that's rarely discussed (let alone taught) in our schools and universities.  You should send a copy of this essay to Dark Wraith over at Big Brass Blog.  The more people read it the better.  The epiphany of change never happens without a good, hard, honest look back.  This I know on a personal and spiritual level.  And we cannot look if we do not know.

by The Fat Lady Sings 2008-06-05 03:00PM | 0 recs
Re: Painful but worth it.

THANK YOU, MSOC.  I didn't know much about this--and it's deeply, deeply disturbing and appalling.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

by thereisnospoon 2008-06-05 03:37PM | 0 recs
God bless you, Maryscott.

We've missed your voice.

by Dumbo 2008-06-05 05:09PM | 0 recs
This part is right anyway:

"this campaign season is probably not a good time to begin agitating for reparations for African Americans"

You then argue, however, that "the days of practicing the time-honoured tradition of keeping our heads down and waiting for change to come to us has long since passed"

If you had remotely grasped the significance of the change that has come to us in the form of Barack Obama, you would have added emphasis to "THIS campaign season."

Because THIS campaign season, and THIS candidate, are all the reparations we're going to get right now.

So, if you're down with the change Obama offers, ask yourself, Does the Obama campaign think agitating for reparations right now is good for his campaign?

No?

Then get with the fucking program. Although I'm sure the Washington Post would love to do a story on Obama supporters pushing for reparations to feed the fear of some that Obama just wants to be the president of black people. Oh what to wear for the photoshoot.

And for the record, I've strongly supported reparations for many years. I also support stretching the boundaries as far as they'll go without breaking. But I also know that when you push too fast, too far, they will break and all of your political power will rush out into the either, serving no one, and never to be seen again.

It's not a matter of fighting the good fight or not. It's a matter of fighting smart so that you're not left with an epitaph  reading, 'I never backed down, I never compromised, here I lie, defeated.'

Nothing from your post is new to me. I grew up in the South and have fought racism and bigotry on the front lines. I dated a black girl, in the 70s, in high school until she couldn't take the abuse our relationship brought on. I've been beaten up.

And now you've read a book so you want to go on the reparations bandwagon regardless of how it affects the Obama campaign? I won't say what I'm thinking here. This should suffice: SYFPH.

When David Axelrod releases a press statement saying they think the reparations issue is a winner for the Obama campaign, then we'll know who to call. Until then, stop being a liability for once.

And by the way, all that aside, and as always, you're a great writer.

by Tocque Deville 2008-06-05 10:45PM | 0 recs
I'm hardly on a bandwagon.



Not interested in marshaling troops on the left or making a campaign issue out of it.

The timing was weird to me, but don't mistake my comments about "keeping our heads down" as a rallying cry to bring reparations to the fore right now.

by Maryscott OConnor 2008-06-05 10:58PM | 0 recs
Reparations

by Tocque Deville 2008-06-05 11:09PM | 0 recs
Re: Reparations
This is a totally inappropriate place to post this, but I can't find a better one to think Internet blog poster "Tocque Deville" for this, posted years ago on this site ... I can't remember exactly when or in relation to what topic, but I saved this because it struck a resonate chord. Incidentally, I voted Republican for 28 years in the Deep South Bible Belt states of Tennessee and Alabama. I was guilty of "loyalism." Set me free! loy'al∑ism n Support or loyalty to the establishment, government, political party or leaders without condition or merit. What could compel self-ascribed conservatives to blindly follow a regime that has violated every principle on which conservatism stands? Loyalism. Indeed, conservatives in large number embraced the violation of the very foundation of conservative ideology itself - the limit of government power - in their willingness to follow president Bush and his unprecedented expansion of such power in the name of loyalty. When one steps back and beholds the scope of government power under the Bush regime, from the massive, secret and unaccountable national security apparatus, to the more than eight hundred radio stations that blanket the nation with pro-Bush, pro-government propaganda 24 hours a day, to their very own pro-Bush, pro-government television network - not to mention countless local television stations and newspapers, even the most dedicated Bush loyalist must wonder if so much power is safe in any politician's hands. And after the 2006 election, they should also be wondering if such loyalism has been good for their party. ___ Internet Blogger "Tocque Deville"
by Charles in AL 2008-06-11 01:04PM | 0 recs
Re: Reparations

loy'al·ism n
    Support or loyalty to the establishment, government, political party or leaders without condition or merit.

What could compel self-ascribed conservatives to blindly follow a regime that has violated every principle on which conservatism stands? Loyalism. Indeed, conservatives in large number embraced the violation of the very foundation of conservative ideology itself - the limit of government power - in their willingness to follow president Bush and his unprecedented expansion of such power in the name of loyalty.

When one steps back and beholds the scope of government power under the Bush regime, from the massive, secret and unaccountable national security apparatus, to the more than eight hundred radio stations that blanket the nation with pro-Bush, pro-government propaganda 24 hours a day, to their very own pro-Bush, pro-government television network - not to mention countless local television stations and newspapers, even the most dedicated Bush loyalist must wonder if so much power is safe in any politician's hands. And after the 2006 election, they should also be wondering if such loyalism has been good for their party.
_
Internet Blogger "Tocque Deville"

by Charles in AL 2008-06-11 01:05PM | 0 recs
Re: Painful but worth it.

Fuck that shit and we don't live in History ok!If you think you owe something to them why don't you grab some AA homeless into your home.

by judas 2008-06-06 12:01AM | 0 recs
MSOC

Thanks for this.  You've added another book (or two) to my reading list. I have to admit I'm astounded to find out about the court-room managed slavery that delivered innocent people to current US corporations to literally slave in their mines and fields and factories.

I'm horrified.

I also wish that you were still posting on dkos because a diary like this deserves to be up on the top of the rec list there.

I'll be posting about it on my blog today.

by vbdietz 2008-06-06 03:59AM | 0 recs
Re: The American Stain

The most powerful diary I have read anywhere.., thank you. I wish I could recommend you, or throw you some mojo, but I can not. I hope everyone here has a chance to read this.

by awobbly 2008-06-05 11:35AM | 0 recs
I recommended

and tipped on behalf of both of us.

by gchaucer2 2008-06-05 11:43AM | 0 recs
I'll put one on there for you too

by Sun Dog 2008-06-05 11:55AM | 0 recs
Re: The American Stain

Thanks Mary, this needed to be posted here.

by sparkalepsy 2008-06-05 11:38AM | 0 recs
Re: The American Stain

Needs to be posted here, there and everywhere.

by dchill 2008-06-05 12:52PM | 0 recs
And has been.
Booman Version

Street Prophets Version

Maat's Feather Version

PFF Version

and, just for kicks -- though I had to sacrifice an alternate ID to do it -- ah, the elephantine memory of the Hunters of the Banned at DKos...

DKos Version

                         

by Maryscott OConnor 2008-06-05 12:57PM | 0 recs
It is quite impossible

to respond to your diary adequately because I am still cringing at the capacity for evil.  Thank you for making me aware of this book and yet another stain on the conscience of this country.

by gchaucer2 2008-06-05 11:40AM | 0 recs
I guess its probably not the time

but it needs to happen.  Great diary.  Completely serious on this: I wonder what the interest on 40 acres and a mule is?

by linc 2008-06-05 11:42AM | 0 recs
Re: The American Stain

WOW.

by ihaveseenenough 2008-06-05 11:42AM | 0 recs
Re: The American Stain

Thank you.

by Iago 2008-06-05 12:07PM | 0 recs
Re: The American Stain

Yes, it was a powerful, and disturbing, read.

by ahw 2008-06-05 12:15PM | 0 recs
Re: The American Stain

If I could rec you I would. Even then I wouldn't be able to rec as many times as it deserves.

by terra 2008-06-05 12:18PM | 0 recs
As wrong as this stuff absolutely was,

I see little how this relates to politics or anything of the sort. Or how it should.

by DiamondJay 2008-06-05 12:29PM | 0 recs
Re: As wrong as this stuff absolutely was,

Ignore DiamondJay, he doesn't get anything except a drumbeat for the Clintons.

by jv 2008-06-05 12:49PM | 0 recs
Re: As wrong as this stuff absolutely was,

except no matter what history, I do not choose my candidate based on his race's history. I vote for a candidate if he is likely to implement the right policies in the general election, or win the general election in a primary election.

by DiamondJay 2008-06-05 01:08PM | 0 recs
Re: As wrong as this stuff absolutely was,

Believe it or not, politics exists beyond the scope of the Presidential election, and discussing things like reparations certainly qualifies as political debate.

by Jay R 2008-06-05 01:21PM | 0 recs
DiamondJay,

maybe you can write us a long, painful book about the history of the beleaguered, misunderstood, hard-working white voters of our country.  They built this country, you know.

by Dumbo 2008-06-05 05:13PM | 0 recs
Re: DiamondJay,

See, this is the type of subtle racism that plagues America.

Why can't you recognize the suffering rather than equating it to something white?

FYI:  You can respect Black history without denigrating hard working white people.

by jv 2008-06-06 06:07AM | 0 recs
Really, not even a clue?

In terms of the denial of cause and effect, I find your response marginally as chilling as this diary.

by Tenafly Viper 2008-06-05 12:55PM | 0 recs
Re: The American Stain

I understand your argument, but don't feel that anyone would be capable of fairly determining to whom and how much reparations should be made (or for that matter, exactly from whom).  That a grave injustice was perpetrated and that echoes of that injustice reverberate to this day is a fact disputed by few, but how we "repair" that injustice would be a matter of great debate.

For my part, I believe that a leveling of the playing field is a step in the right direction.  We equalize opportunity but not results.  We can place additional assistance to vulnerable communities to ensure that proper safety nets, access and education exist.  But, with money flushing down the well called Iraq, this country will be lucky to avoid bankruptcy and third world status in the next 40 years.

Just my ramblings and .02

by Sychotic1 2008-06-05 12:30PM | 0 recs
A level playing field...


Doesn't do much good when the other team has equipment, training and a head start of 348 years...
by Maryscott OConnor 2008-06-05 01:06PM | 0 recs
Re: A level playing field...

I hear you, but I don't have a crystal ball to tell me who or what our sisters and brothers could have become with different opportunities.  All I can do is try to make sure that those opportunities are available now so that they, their children and their children's children don't have to face what their fathers and their father's fathers had to face.

by Sychotic1 2008-06-05 01:17PM | 0 recs
did you get permission

from Blackmon to use such a lengthy excerpt of his work?

I don't mean to take away from the importance of this diary and its subject, but that excerpt seems to go beyond fair use.

by desmoinesdem 2008-06-05 12:37PM | 0 recs
It's taken care of.

by Maryscott OConnor 2008-06-05 12:59PM | 0 recs
Re: The American Stain

by Tenafly Viper 2008-06-05 12:50PM | 0 recs
Re: The American Stain

Firstly, it's great to see your name here MSOC.  

As to reparations, I certainly agree with you as to who has benefitted from the inequitable treatment of blacks; but I'd also suggest that not all "white" citizens share equal blame or have reaped equal benefit.  The vast waves of immigration in the late 19th and eary 20th century brought vast numbers of new, poor European immigrants who were more exploited and discriminated against than lifted by the economic system in place upon their arrival.

To be sure, these immigrants held considerable advantages in their opportunities to rise from their oppression as compared to former slaves; but it would be foolish to suggest that these whites shared the responsibility for or enjoyed benefits from slavery as newly-arrived citizens.

In that light, I think that the resistance to reparations takes two forms.  One is from the descendents of slave holders who cannot imagine yielding back their stolen riches to their victims; and two, groups who came to this country a half century after the Civil War, endured their own oppression without recompense, and feel no ancestral responsibility for the injustices.

Of the two, I have more sympathy for the latter; but those will also be the hardest to convince that they bear some indebtedness for their opportunities, if not for their ancesters' role in the oppression itself.

A very though-provoking diary, however.  Thanks.

by rb608 2008-06-05 01:01PM | 0 recs
Thanks



Consider, however, that the United States itself and its separate states ALL reaped the benefit.

Railroads that carried goods and services that helped all businesses were built by slaves. Just for one example.

Banks: Wachovia bought a bank that was bought by a bank that was founded by one of the largest holders of "peonage slaves" in the South.

Wachovia, by the way, as Blackmon reports, did the right thing -- or at least made a start -- and fully acknowledged and apologised for the slavery that created the wealth that they acquired which enabled them to acquire more wealth...

I sobbed openly reading that coda. The accounts of the African American Wachovia employees' reactions -- chills, man. Chills.

by Maryscott OConnor 2008-06-05 01:05PM | 0 recs
Re: Thanks

I agree completely.  Even new immigrants build their lives upon the toils of those who came before.

by rb608 2008-06-05 01:10PM | 0 recs
Oh my

Next you are going to tell me there were no good old days when our country was "Godly."

by Sam Wise Gingy 2008-06-05 01:09PM | 0 recs
by nogo postal 2008-06-05 01:30PM | 0 recs
I'd be interested in the diarist's impressions...

to this commentary at Black Agenda Report:

http://www.blackagendareport.com/index.p hp?option=com_content&task=view& id=643&Itemid=1

by citizen53 2008-06-05 01:45PM | 0 recs
huge sigh



I'm with Rev. Wright on this: He's a politician. Doing and saying what politicians need to do and say.

Moreover, he's a politician on a national platform; the level of stupidity of what a candidate needs to do and say if he is to win the support of the majority increases exponentially with the size of his constituency. In this case, the highest case you can get, we're talking about a common denominator so low it could find housing beneath the underbelly of a comatose armadillo in soft clay.

I'm too old to even feign disappointment, let alone shock when one of my chosen representatives starts following the old scripts.

But even if I were surprised, I'm still never going to feel as let down or betrayed as the Obamaniacs, by virtue of the fact that I never had any illusions about him in the first place.

by Maryscott OConnor 2008-06-05 02:34PM | 0 recs
Re: The American Stain

Powerful diary, and a very powerful book. I hope that we as Americans, never let anything like this happen again... although I guess things like this are happening all over the world.

Thank God we're getting closer and closer to the end of the Bush administration.

by dannybauder 2008-06-05 02:29PM | 0 recs
Crap.

This diary is like a slap in the face.

A much-needed slap in the face.

I've got a lot to think about.

by maxomai 2008-06-05 02:30PM | 0 recs
If that analogy carries through...


then I got the shit kicked out of me Reginald Denny-style reading the book.
by Maryscott OConnor 2008-06-05 02:35PM | 0 recs
Thank you for posting this.

Powerfully written, and incredibly disturbing... highly recommended.

by sricki 2008-06-05 05:18PM | 0 recs
Re: The American Stain

MSCOTT, always been a big fan of your work. I don't think I've ever read anything this sobering on any blog. I'm giving this to my 11 year old son to read tomorrow. I wish every child could read this before being influenced by the "whitewashed" history taught in schools today.

by zep93 2008-06-05 05:44PM | 0 recs
Thanks, zep!


If you can stand it, the book is a must-read for people wishing to educate themselves or their children.
by Maryscott OConnor 2008-06-05 06:15PM | 0 recs
Confronting racism

This is exactly the reason why many blacks cannot move themselves out of the poverty level. They cannot stop blaming the world for their loss and current situation. You can ask any real blacks in Africa and they would prefer to be in this great nation of opportunities than to be at Africa but yet the AA community here cannot get over themselves. Why other races who were brought into this nation can succeed and many in the AA community cannot? This is the problem that has to be confronted truthfully. I knew many friends who of descendants of Asian miners but yet are so successful now. So why can't the AA just study and work hard? By working hard i don't mean working at a fastfood outlet only but instead partition enough time to get good grades. If the AA community wants to find excuses, then i do hope they find real inspiration from Obama and look at how he became so successful despite being from a poor family.

by stevent 2008-06-05 08:30PM | 0 recs
I cannot fucking BELIEVE I'm reading this here.

by Maryscott OConnor 2008-06-05 10:44PM | 0 recs
Re: I cannot

mydd ain't the same site it was four years ago.  Sentiment like that is par for course here.

by Skaje 2008-06-06 03:11AM | 0 recs
Did you even READ it?



And if so... what've you got, a second grade reading comprehension?

JESUS.

by Maryscott OConnor 2008-06-05 10:45PM | 0 recs
Maryscott OConnor -great work

This is something that most American's DONT know about. Your well put together diary was very informative.

P.S.Ignore that guy he is obviously a bigot troll.

by TMP 2008-06-06 03:53AM | 0 recs
Re: The American Stain

I'm black and I agree with stevent.It's time for us black people to grow up and start taking control of our own destinty and stop blaming white-people for all of our problems.

by redtime12 2008-06-05 11:49PM | 0 recs
Nobody but yourself
Any colour or white, a person should be judged by his or her character but not sampathy like Obama. Two books of his crying about Fatherless or being Mix race can get him Prez Nominee! I wonder that should be we remember as AMERICAN DREAM COME TRUE.
Thanks to the fools and Real GOD Bless America not that one BO know.
by judas 2008-06-06 12:14AM | 0 recs
nothing new about any of this

anyone familiar with history is fully aware of the stains, blemishes, warts & even cancers on the body politic.

if you want to search out the heinous, you need not look too far, or dig too deep.

however, for those who know no history, this is good stuff, but needs some balance, er, slavery, exploitation of poor and the young and blacks and oriental...and now hispanics in our current day, all this stuff happened in other places as well.

yes, it goes against the expressions of pure goodness and freedom espoused in the constitution and bill of rights, but, hey, that is old, old news.

wallowing in despair and frustration over the past is no way to live the present or plan for the future. what is done is done, we cannot change, but we can work together for some more change.

change comes slowly, incrementally, which is why i do not take seriously all the pieties about the change we are looking for, yes we are looking for change, and we have it. but it will never satisfy those wanting to balance the scales of history, just aint rollin that way

by blackflag 2008-06-06 02:26AM | 0 recs
Re: nothing new about any of this
Your cavalier attitude might be slightly less offensive if it wasn't for the myriad of ways that the ignorance of these historic facts are used to downplay the present day difficulties of African American's in this country. You can see a fine example of this in the truly heinous NY Times article written by Gloria Steinem http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/08/opinio n/08steinem.html
in which she declares that Obama and Black men in general don't really have it all that bad because they got the right to vote 50 years before White Women. After declaring she would never compare the oppression of Black men to White Women she then, of course goes then presents a lost of historic wrongs against women never once mentioning those pesky little outbreaks of lynching of Jim Crow.For a few weeks latter I heard this same atrocity parroted from the mouths of Gloria's right wing sisters on fox news as a way of dismissing some a race based crime. While I agree that people still need to the most they can despite their social circumstances (e.g. Obama) it was so often the case in this election where all we heard about was sexism Hillary had to deal with as if no one tried to use Obama's race against him.
by TMP 2008-06-06 03:49AM | 0 recs
you call it cavalier

i call it an understanding of reality. while we are tying ourselves into knots lets consider the american indian, they have suffered as much or more than most.

there were young kids fed to the maw of the industrial revolution, death of the young.

its not all that newsworthy, but identity politics and the politics of suffering is not going to win the day, we can forge on, or we can wallow.

by blackflag 2008-06-06 04:26AM | 0 recs
Re: The American Stain

For a brief view on how the cinema has treated African-Americans and perpetuated myths of white supremacy, see Mark Daniels' film "Classified X" written and narrated by Melvin Van Peebles.

It's fascinating to see Hollywood's overt project to manipulate perceptions of race. Van Peebles notes that every step of "progress" has come with prices, caveats, and a new set of insults, right up to the present day.

by BobzCat 2008-06-06 04:47AM | 0 recs
By this Logic, shouldn't we
make an Iraqi president?
I would suggest an iraqi who experienced our torture chambers.
Bring him over, and make him our leader.
And let the idiots like this howl:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kGGq82Agb F4&eurl=http://noquarterusa.net/blog /
by layer cake 2008-06-06 06:49AM | 0 recs
Great Diary

What wasn't covered in the diary is that the re-enslavement didn't happen right away.  For a while after the Civil War, there was enough protection for southern blacks that they were able to vote and participate in politics.  For a while they were able to elect black people to legislatures and to enact good legislation.

And then, a new alliance developed between the southern planter elites and northern businessmen who came to adopt the southern planters' aristocratic notions of society and politics.  Protection was withdrawn and hard core violence was perpetrated against any black or white leader who resisted the re-enslavement of black people in the South.

This was terrorism on an industrial scale and it was aided and abetted by northern elites.

Orville Vernon Burton in his recent, "The Age of Lincoln" has a pretty good description of the politics of how the re-enslavement was accomplished, what that meant for northern, white industrial workers, and for American democracy in general.

One piece of advice that you probably don't need.  You can get obscure books from the research libraries of major universities, even if you aren't student, faculty or staff.  For a fee (it used to be about $100 a year) you can get a library card for the UCLA library. They will have (or be able to obtain) most any book you want.  When I lived in Oakland, I had a similar arrangement with UC Berkeley's Library, which allowed me to check books out of any and all of the libraries there.

by kaleidescope 2008-06-06 06:56AM | 0 recs
Re: The American Stain

I understand what you're saying, but I don't think reparations are really possible here.  In other reparations cases, the payments are for crimes committed in a particular time.  So we have one set of people committing crimes against another in a time of war--and then after that war, a court issues penalty for those crimes.  There's no 'war' per se in this case.  What we'd have is one period of history bringing tort against another--effectively, it would be the present suing the past, society in one point in time demanding payment for mistakes we now understand.  I just don't see how that is possible.

What we can do, and what we have done for about two decades now, is take 'reparations' and look for ways to translate it into a social process.  So, in the turn of the 20th century through the 1950s we have the emergence of a middle class in this country due to certain government actions.  Blacks didn't benefit due to the inequalities put in place in the situations you describe. So, in the 1980s we create social programs that go back and set in motion the same transition to middle class for blacks that everybody else started a century ago.  And that works,  more or less, albeit far from perfectly.   So, 'reparation' takes the place of scholarships and admissions policies and hiring practices and assistance funds, etc.,that over time favor the growth of a black middle class. And that's just one attempt.

The challenge, then, is to keep finding the arguments and insights and solutions to bring about a complete translation of 'reparations' along those lines--which could take decades, and which keeps getting derailed because conservatives think it's just a big joke and undermine it whenever they can.

by Jeffrey Feldman 2008-06-06 11:31AM | 0 recs
Understood



If nothing else, reading this book has provided me an enduring case against those who claim the need for Affirmative Action doesn't exist.

Pfffft. It's the least -- the very least -- we as a society can do.

by Maryscott OConnor 2008-06-07 06:51AM | 0 recs

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