Interview with Pulitzer Prize winning author, Douglas Blackmon-Part 4

chain gang Atlanta, Georgia

An 1895 Atlanta, Georgia chain gang. Photo: georgiaencyclopedia.org

Today brings the fourth and last part of the interview with Douglas Blackmon. (Click for Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.) Thanks and appreciation to Mr. Blackmon for his time and his book, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II.

MD: You were “reared,” according to your bio, in the Mississippi Delta. How did being raised in that specific locale affect the writing of the book, or did it?

Blackmon: I have been writing about race and even more so I have been perplexed about why the world that I grew up in in Mississippi in the 1960’s and 70’s. Even as a kid I had an abnormally large interest in and concern that something was really strange about this sort of segregated, half-segregated world that I lived in.

I was one of a very small number of white kids that were in the public school system in this little farm town and was in the first class in Mississippi to begin the first grade together black and white. When the Supreme Court ordered the immediate integration of 30 school districts in Mississippi in 1969, they closed the school segregated before Christmas, reopened them integrated after Christmas. I began first grade in 1970, so I was in the first class to start on the first day and go through twelve grades together.

In most towns in the delta, which is a majority black area, but more so then than it is now, what that meant was that all whites left immediately, except a small number. In my town it was different in that there was a small group of white farmers who, while not particularly liberal, believed that the school system needed to be saved. There was a group of more moderate whites who pledged to send their kids to the public school system. When those schools integrated they became 70% black instead of 99% black. I went to a school that was about a quarter to a third white all the way through 12th grade.

So I had lived in this majority black world in my school days, but everything else in my life remained largely segregated. Segregated baseball teams, segregated Boy Scout troops, and segregated church for all intents and purposes. It was just a very hostile environment. Even as a kid I was acutely aware something was wrong and started writing about it. I wrote an essay in the seventh grade, which was the beginning of my writing about it. In many respects I view it all as one continuum of things that I’ve written about and the book is just the biggest chunk of things that I’ve done.

MD: When the book was published and people who had read it began talking to you about it, how many people were completely unfamiliar with these events in history from the end of the Civil War to the end of World War 2 and the demise of the convict-lease system?

Blackmon: Most. The vast majority of people say that-white and black. There is a very significant subset of people who have studied 20th century American history or academics who’ve studied this or others who’ve studied this on their own. It’s like when Eric Foner’s book, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, came out in the late ‘80s. If you were a student of history, you would have known a lot of facts that pertained to Foner’s work, but Reconstruction articulated what had happened and articulated the idea that the way the puzzle pieces had been put together in the past was distorted if not grossly false. Even people who thought they had a very up-to-date view, recognized this was different from the classic, historical view of Reconstruction. There were many savvy Reconstruction scholars who were suddenly dwarfed by this interpretation.

In the same way, there are many people who are familiar with the facts [of the convict-lease scheme], but didn’t have the jigsaw pieces put together. Some people said they knew all about it, or were under the impression that they did, but really they didn’t. Certainly it has been true that people who had not studied this had no comprehension of what had happened and I do think it’s true for the vast majority of black and white Americans the period from the end of the Civil War to the beginning of the Civil Rights movement is just a blank space.

MD: Do you think that some kind of reparations is due to African Americans living today?

Blackmon: I think the notion of reparations that has been most discussed is this idea of some sort of cash payment to living African Americans to make up for antebellum slavery or something after that. It sounds good in theory and you can make a compelling intellectual argument for that, but I think mechanically and legally it’s impossible. The problem, particularly with antebellum slavery, is who owes the money? There were 200,000 Union Soldiers who died to end slavery; does that change the calculations? Even with these atrocities that I write about there is a statue of limitations, so after a certain point in time you have no legal remedy for things that happened in the past. People like Charles Ogletree of Harvard Law School have really tried to test the boundaries of the legalities and so far have not been able to bring anything to pass. It seems the only way would be a political resolution, where Congress would pass laws to facilitate it. My general view is that it is complicated and it is probably not the most productive way.

What I do think is that we already know from the experience of the last 40 years, since 1970, that when African Americans have had access to the main wealth generating mechanisms in America they have had fantastic achievement. Even though it doesn’t always work as well as we want, things like affirmative action have provided benefits, both to individuals and to society as a whole, that are fantastic-just exponentially great.

Slavery By Another Name and other books covering the same time period can be ordered through the links below. You pay the same as going directly to Amazon.com and I get a referral fee. Thanks for supporting martyduren.com.

Marty Duren

Just a guy writing some things.

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