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Nothing Civil About It

Austin Film Society spotlights 'Slavery by Another Name'

By Anne S. Lewis, Fri., Nov. 8, 2013

Nothing Civil About It

Ever tried to connect the historical dots between this country's slavery era and the civil-rights movement? We did have an Emancipation Proclamation, the Civil War, and a few constitutional amendments, after all. Didn't slavery end after the Civil War? The short answer to an obviously long and vexing story is that the economies and social structures of the Southern states were so bound up with and addicted to the labor that slavery provided – and so paralyzed by its abolition – that former slave owners collaborated with state and local governments to successfully create what was, in effect, a "slavery by another name." Even more remarkable was that the many forms of de facto slavery created persisted until the start of World War II.

The 2012 film Slavery by Another Name, directed by Sam Pollard, is based upon the 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning book by the same name by Wall Street Journal Atlanta Bureau Chief Douglas A. Blackmon, who also co-produced the film. The book and the film chronicle the intense postwar efforts on the part of the Southern states to reinstate the status quo of the slavery era by first enacting laws, called Black Codes, which essentially reinstated the pre-war Slave Codes. When these were tossed out, in another clever end-run around abolition, laws were passed across the South which criminalized a wide range of otherwise innocent activities and statuses – from vagrancy, speaking loudly in the company of white women, or walking beside a railroad to changing employers without permission ... you get the picture. These laws were then selectively enforced against blacks. (In the film, Blackmon notes that his examination of old arrest records dispelled the long-accepted notion of post-Emancipation blacks gone lawless during the Reconstruction years.) As a result, through various forms of peonage or debt servitude, thousands of unemployed black men were jailed. Sometimes the huge fines and court costs slapped on them might be picked up by a local employer for whom the indebted would then be forced to work in order to repay the debt – and often way beyond the repayment point. In other schemes, state prisons generated income by leasing their huge convict inventories – recall the chain gangs – to factories, plantations, and other industries, public and private. There, they were often brutalized in forced labor-camp conditions frequently far worse than the conditions of pre-war slavery. And because they received no compensation for their work other than discharging the terms of their sentences, they were left to try to lift themselves out of poverty without any means of accumulating wealth, property, or education.

So, why is all of this so little-known today? When Blackmon appeared as a guest on Bill Moyers' PBS show, Moyers asked him this very question: how the two of them, both Southerners who grew up right after the era in question, could have been so unaware of it. Blackmon said the major reason was that this was a history we hadn't wanted to know about as a country. "We've engaged in a kind of collective amnesia about this, particularly about the severity of it," he explained. The conventional history focused on a lot of false mythologies, he said, like that of the post-Emancipation slaves becoming lawless after the war and during Reconstruction.

The film's writer, Sheila Curran Bernard, added, "To some degree, elements of the system were known – the cultural tropes of the Southern chain gang, John Henry and such – and the brutality of the Southern prison system had been written about by scholars, some of whom are in the film. But Doug's book was an eye-opener to me and many others, I think, in its careful presentation of evidence that many of those caught up in this system were guilty of nothing more than being African-American in a post-Civil War South, and the extent of corruption within a system that sought their labor at minimum expense (regardless of the human cost), right up to World War II."


AFS Doc Nights screens Slavery by Another Name Wednesday, Nov. 13, 7:30pm at AFS at the Marchesa (6226 Middle Fiskville). Visit www.austinfilm.org for complete details.

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