Slavery by Another Name

Author: Douglas A. Blackmon

Doubleday, 2008

Blackmon (born 1964) grew up in the Mississippi Delta. As of this writing (March 2012) he is the Atlanta Bureau Chief of the Wall Street Journal. This book won him a Pulitzer Prize.

Blackmon writes of whites reaching for profits in farming, mining and other industrial endeavors by exploiting the labor of black men denied their freedom by trickery – by arrests on trumped up charges.

Blackmon's critique extends from the exploitation of slaves during the Civil War to the beginning of World War II. It's a story about gang labor and the failure of the Justice Department to prosecute violations of the rights of black men.

The Constitution's 13th Amendment reads:

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction."

The justice system at the federal level was unwilling to pursue the issue of convictions. Local law enforcement and officials were involved in the money games and not about to pursue prosecutions of those participating in unjust convictions.

A snippet from the book:

Contrary to the congratulatory pronouncements that followed Georgia's "abolition" of the practice of selling black prisoners in 1908, the state had more forced labor slaves than ever by 1930. In excess of eight thousand men – nearly all of them black – worked in chain gangs in 116 counties. Of 1.1 million African Americans in the state that year, approximately half lived under the direct control and force of whites – unable to move or seek employment elsewhere under the threat that doing so would lead to the dreaded chain gang. (p. 371)

Blackman writes of the thinly fictionalized condemnation of Georgia's penal system published in 1902, Georgia Nigger, by the socialist journalist John L. Spivak. Spivak had charmed his way into extensive tours of the system by officials. Blackmon writes that Spivak "unstintingly portrayed a system designed to enslave or intimidate black men into obedience." (The book is currently on sale at under the title Hard Times on a Southern Chain Gang.)

Blackmon writes of Charles E. Bledsoe pleading guilty in federal court in Mobile, Alabama, on October 13, 1941, to a charge of peonage for holding a back man named Martin Thompson against his will. Bledsoe's punishment was a fine of $100 and six months probations. "The futility of combating black slavery," writes Blackmon, "was clear."

In early December, 1941, when the US entered World War II and a move to national mobilization for the war effort began, the Roosevelt administration pushed on the Justice Department, under Attorney General Charles Biddle. Writes Blackmon: "Biddle was informed that federal policy had long been to cede virtually all allegations of slavery to local jurisdiction – effectively guaranteeing they would never be prosecuted." Biddle, on December 12, 1941, issued a directive – Circular No 3591 – to all federal prosecutors to direct their attention to "the possibilities of successful prosecutions stemming from alleged peonage complaints..." (p 377-8)

Blackmon continues:

In August, 1942, a letter from a sixteen-year-old black boy arrived at the Department of Justice all alleging that Charles Bledsoe – the Alabama man who received a $100 fine for peonage prior to Biddle's memo – was still holding members of the boy's family as slaves. Despite the Biddle directive, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover initially saw no need to mount another aggressive investigation. The U.S. attorney in Mobile, Francis H. Inge, was similarly disinterested. "No active investigation will be instituted," Hoover wrote to assistant Attorney General Wendell Berge, attempting to close the file. (p. 379)

Berge wrote in a terse letter ordering Inge into action. As the war progressed, the Department of Justice prosecuted the "U.S. Sugar Company in Florida for forcing black men into their sugarcane fields. Sheriffs who colluded with the company were brought to trial. (p. 380)

Blackmon writes of President Truman's Committee on Civil rights recommending "bolstering the anti-slavery statute to plainly criminalise involuntary servitude." In1948 "the entire federal criminal code was dramatically rewritten, further clarifying the laws against involuntary servitude. (p. 381)

In 1954, in Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court reversed what Blackmon describes as the "cynical logic" of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. This "sealed forever that the terror regime which had dominated black life over the previous ninety ears was ending." (pp. 381-2)

Blackmon's documentation is extensive.

Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) has created a documentary based on Blackmon's book. The book's jacket recommends a visit to for images, primary research materials, and interviews.

Copyright © 2008-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.