When Were Blacks Truly Freed From Slavery?
For Juneteenth, The Root investigates the blurred line of emancipation in America.
"Black people had been seen as chattel for many years and just because someone says that we're free doesn't mean everyone bought into it," says Sam Pollard, who directed the documentary film adaptation of Slavery by Another Name, which aired on PBS earlier this year. "It's racism and how whites perceive us; some see us as people who shouldn't have any kind of rights."
But in 1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved against that notion. Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor during World War II by Japanese troops, Roosevelt signed Circular No. 3591 (pdf), giving teeth to the Anti-Peonage Law of 1867, which criminalized the practice. Dispatching a federal investigation, Roosevelt's team prosecuted guilty whites and effectively ended peonage in 1942.
However, African-American second-class citizenship has reappeared as a result of the war on drugs and draconian laws created during the 1980s. As civil rights litigator and author Michelle Alexander points out in her recent book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, the subjugation of African Americans through criminalization continues through the prison industrial complex.
"Racial caste is alive and well in America," Alexander wrote in the Huffington Post. "Here are a few facts ... There are more African Americans under correctional control today -- in prison or jail, on probation or parole -- than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began. As of 2004, more African-American men were disenfranchised (due to felon disenfranchisement laws) than in 1870, the year the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified, prohibiting laws that explicitly deny the right to vote on the basis of race."
But Blackmon explains that the American economy doesn't rely on prison labor for major financial gain the way the New South did. For that reason, he is hopeful that the prison industrial complex won't evolve into a form of modern-day slavery.
"As the crime rates have dramatically dropped in the last decade, people have begun to feel less threatened," Blackmon offers. "Now they can open their eyes and say, 'Why are these young men who really didn't do much of anything in jail?' "
Hillary Crosley is the New York bureau chief of The Root.