Commentary: New Film Highlights the Real End of Slavery

Slavery by Another Name explains how the Emancipation Proclamation was hardly the end of Black bondage in America.

Posted: 02/15/2012 04:46 PM EST

It’s an old standby for racists who don’t want to be too direct with their racist beliefs: “I’m not racist,” they’ll begin foolishly, “but I just don’t understand how Blacks haven’t gotten over racism by now. It’s been more than 150 years. What more do they want?”

Indeed, Abraham Lincoln’s famous Emancipation Proclamation purported to free the slaves in America’s South in 1863. But what that piece of legislation meant on paper and what it meant in practice were two different things. True, after 1863, it became illegal to buy and sell Black people like sacks of flour. But it certainly didn’t end the practice of slavery. Sounds crazy? A great new documentary explains.

Slavery by Another Name, a new film from director Sam Pollard, aired on PBS last night. In it, Pollard details the tricky and deceitful piece of language that allowed slavery to continue all the way to World War II, 80 years after the Emancipation Proclamation was supposed to take effect. (Hint: It had to do with crime.)

“When you go to the 13th amendment, one of the fascinating things about the text of that amendment is that it says that slavery is abolished, except in the case of a punishment for a crime,” historian Adam Green says in the film. “And within that wiggle room, there's still the possibility of extending slavery, as it were, by another name.”

Insidiously, former slave-owners in the South, angered about losing their power over Blacks, found a new way to keep Blacks in bondage, especially Black men, who were more intimidating than Black women. Legislators came up with ridiculous laws, found racist cops to enforce those laws, and then arrested Black men en masse and forced them into labor camps. It was slavery, but not technically slavery, and it went on for decades.

“It was a crime in the South for any farm worker — though the law was really only ever applied to Black people — to seek employment from a new employer without permission from the person you worked for at the time,” the film’s co-executive producer Douglas Blackman told NPR’s Tell Me More. “And so it was a crime to look for a job in the South, no matter how badly abused you were at the hands of whoever employed you at the time.”

More than a century after the “end” of slavery, Black men and women are still being picked up and thrown into jail at wildly disproportionate rates. And those who aren’t in jail often suffer with severe mental and emotional trauma. This is not by accident. This was a calculated move to keep Black people under white overseers’ thumbs long after the Civil War was over. Keep this in mind for the next time someone complains about Blacks not being able to “get over it.” Explain to them how they’re ignorant, and then tell them to get over themselves.

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(Photo: PBS)

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