Douglas A. Blackmon is the Atlanta bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal and winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction for his extraordinary book, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II.
MD: Willie Clark, a 90 year-old lifelong resident of Pratt City, Alabama, told you of stories he had received from his father of some workers who died in the mines and were, at the instruction of company officials, not buried, but tossed into the red-hot coke ovens on the property. When I read this, I could not help but think of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. As you studied through this, besides the dehumanizing aspects used by the Nazi regime, did you find anything else where you thought, “Gosh, this is like what happened in Nazi Germany”?
Blackmon: Yes. There are all kinds of parallels.
It is important to say at the front, that you cannot compare infinite anything to infinite anything, so you can’t compare infinite evil. What I would say is, what happened to African Americans during the period of time was the product of infinite evil as was the case with what happened to the Jews in Nazi Germany. There is no unit of measurement with which to measure infinity, so it is risky to compare them; however, there are all sorts of valid comparisons.
There are lessons in general for all humanity and certainly for the Western world. There are lessons on why the Holocaust was so terrible, why it was more than the murder of 6 million Jews. There are lessons of memory: How do we remember these events and why? But the fundamental similarity between these two things was, in fact, by virtue of the exercise of the dehumanizing of a minority group of people which was the gateway to a sequence of events aimed at their ultimate destruction.
As it was, the United States had a tremendous genocidal impulse toward African Americans, but it was tempered by a utilitarianism that recognized these individuals were so fundamental to the economic system that no one would have comprehended killing them all as a solution. Though the United States had decided, in the case of the subset of Native Americans, to just kill off so many of them that the rest will get out of sight. So Americans felt pretty comfortable with genocide by that point and was really helped by that, just as was the case in Germany.
Then there was the onset of Darwinism, since in the early years of Darwinism-having nothing to do with Darwin himself-when the interpretations of all this science were pretty terrible. There were those who thought the theory did lead to different levels of humans. And if there were different levels of humans, then some were inferior to others, so that some would die away and some would survive. So this idea that validated the notion that whites are the supreme form of man and it’s okay if the less supreme forms die away was the basis of the Holocaust, was the basis of what happened in convict lease and was the basis for what happened with the American Indians. This all comes from the same place, but the African Americans were saved by the necessity for them to be around to grow cotton. Fortunately, by the time technology had evolved to the point that the physical labor was no longer needed, the genocidal impulse had died away. But back in the 1860s and 1870s there was a lot of conversation about shipping all the blacks away or one way or another getting rid of them. Had African Americans not been so critical to cotton farming, Americans would have turned to a much more organized kind of genocide, I suspect, or expulsion to Africa, which itself would have been a genocidal act. All of this is only possible if you dehumanize these individuals.
But in a more specific kind of way, Hitler talked about drawing many of his ideas from the segregation practices of the United States and there was a great exchange of ideas between German scientists and American scientists in the field of genetics. At the time, it was all in the vein of this white supremacy. Hitler was very aware that America was the first place to come up with the beginnings of an apartheid structure, so those ideas were adopted and adapted to be much more constraining in Germany.
The key element in the south, then, of perverting the criminal justice system into an instrument of injustice against blacks, was the exception of the 13th amendment, which states a person may not be placed in involuntary servitude except in the case of persons duly convicted of a crime. The idea was, then, that people could be enslaved if they had been duly convicted. The south began to change thousands of laws to make it effectively impossible for a black person to live in the south and not be in violation of some law at some time. This is particularly true when laws are written that are on their face unconstitutional since they cannot really be defined, such as making it a crime to disturb white women on a train. What does that mean to “disturb”? Only a black man would ever be charged with disturbing a white woman. These kinds of laws were only enforced against blacks and the south came up with all these types of laws and piled them on and piled them on to criminalize black life. The most notorious of them all was the law that made it a crime for a farm worker to seek employment from one farmer without first getting permission from his current employer. That was explicitly to say, ‘You cannot leave the place you are in without getting permission from the white man,’ which is enslavement in its own way. If a worker attempted to do it, then he would be enslaved through the criminal justice system.
Since this whole process was being invented in America, having not been done before, it took several decades, from the 1870s to around the first decade of the 20th century, to create this world where the black man, unless he never speaks a word, never crosses the line and never asks for anything other than what is being offered to him is in jeopardy of all these terrible things happening to him. That’s similar to the anti-thrift laws of 1936, when Germany adopted a code of law that penalized behavior in the same way. In the year Dachau was opened, the people who were held were not Jews who were rounded up because they were Jews, they were enemies of the state who had violated German law. Then all of those Jews not in Dachau were terrified by the laws and the system and changed their lives in the kinds of ways needed to avoid the penalties involved.
Then the level of brutality, the abject indifference to whether the person would survive, also has its own set of parallels. You did not have a point in the convict lease system where all the needed work had been finished, so that a decision would be made to kill them all in an organized way. But there are all these other echoes and the fact that at the Pratt Mines, as was reported by Willie Clark, bodies of dead workers were tossed into the fires and that’s the reason I put it in the book. And who’s to say how much that happened? There aren’t any U.S. Steel records like the Germans kept, but we do know that those who weren’t thrown into ovens were just thrown into a hole out in a field. There are one or two photographs of those “burials.” The would just dig ditches as fast as they could, throw a bunch of bodies in with no record of who’s there or who’s where.
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