Thursday, February 23, 2012

Local History: "Slavery By Another Name" and the Apartheid Police State

The website for the excellent documentary "Slavery By Another Name" created a time-line of Louisiana history related to the reinstatement of slavery in the post-Civil War era as the freedoms gained for blacks immediately after the Civil War were erased.

After WW2, the Civil Rights movement won new freedoms, reaching it's zenith with the black power movements of the late 1960s. But, since the 1970s the creation of a new Jim Crow has been under construction to dismantle those victories, with the drug war as it's main pillar and the criminal justice system as it's main tool for repealing the rights won during the Civil Rights movement.

Here is a short synopsis of local history relating to the creation of the first Jim Crow convict-slavery system, as well as how it continues today:

1865: The Civil War officially ends.

1866: Louisiana began leasing state prisoners to private companies—it first leases out forty-five men for fifty cents a day. (prison labor for private companies still exists, as well as extensive government use of prison labor, which displaces non-convict workers from job options, at least until they are forced to commit crimes and can then get a job in prison: 1, 2, 3)

1873: Colfax Massacre: In response to a contested governor's election between Republicans and Democrats, a black militia formed to protect the Republican politicians inside the Colfax courthouse in Grant Parish. Local white Democrats attacked, focusing their violence on the blacks. Three white men and more than one hundred black men were killed, many after surrendering. Though similar episodes had occurred across Louisiana and the South, the scale and savagery of the massacre brought national attention. (The murder of blacks is now largely carried out by the state in the form of death sentences 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)

1874: Confederate veterans who had taken part in the Colfax Massacre organized the "White League" in order to better intimidate Republicans and blacks. (There are monuments to the White League and to Confederate generals in New Orleans to this day 1, 2)

1892: Plessy v. Ferguson: In 1892, Homer Plessy and a group of activists in New Orleans sought to challenge the constitutionality of a Louisiana Jim Crow law requiring segregation on railroad cars. Plessy, who was one-eighth black, argued that his right to ride on a white car was protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. (Their descendants have commemorated the event down by Royal and Press Streets 1)

1896: The Supreme Court ruled against Homer Plessy (Plessy v. Ferguson), deciding that the Louisiana law was not in conflict with the Fourteenth Amendment, and legitimizing segregation as "separate but equal." (the legal system is also the main instrument for the creation of the New Jim Crow 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)

1901: Public outrage over scandalous tales of abuse helped end the practice of state leasing of convicts by the state. (Though if you watch "Slavery By Another Name" you'll see that sharecropping, debt peonage, and other forms of slavery continued. Also, private prisons in which inmates work for corporations (1, 2) for pennies an hour is essentially the same thing, and it continues today.)

Again, everyone should definitely watch Slavery By Another Name. It mentions logging and railroad construction companies as being the major convict-leasing employers in Louisiana. In the next local history post, we'll look at the Louisiana IWW's creation of America's first inter-racial union by organizing loggers. This happened about the same time as the convict-leasing loggers were enslaved, and convict-leasing was often useful for bosses in stopping union activity. That's for next time, though.