Tag Archives: black codes

Can We Even Imagine the Antebellum Atmosphere Bending that Forged the Generations to Come?

Reconstruction after the Civil War
There are men that have the epic power to create the global rules that govern my life. These men exist in the stillness above the turmoil of the street. I do not sense the economic levers they pull, only the gale force winds that bend my life from their having pull them. These few men can start the business cycle and they can end it. They can share the bounty of the collective efforts of hundreds of millions or they can hoard it. They can allow me to live in peace, or they can send my children to far off lands as instruments of American might. I acquiesce, as we all do, to their silent power and hope that my days on earth are relatively comforted by their will.

Yet they have the power to bend the atmosphere into a deathly nightmare if it meets their goals. It is this way now and it was this way in 1865. While I have contemplated why the macro-movements were chosen for my day and how the impacts have tossed about billions around the world, I cannot grasp the nightmare that the atmosphere benders chose for millions of common men, slaves and freedmen in the American 19th century. How could they have puppeteered such horrors?

I was a child in the era of Viet Nam, registered for the draft and somehow resolved my imaginations of my existence in a world of war. Yet, I was never forced to imagine how it must have felt to be born into oppression? How was it to be told that anything your skin touched was to be scorned by others as if the color of your skin was leprosy? How did it feel to know that even a grungy Woolworth lunch counter was above your station?

What must it have been like to be kept in an unjust paternal state? How could a man breathe when he could not even keep his kin from being ripped away from his protection at any moment. What must it have been like when the entire economic system would not even entertain allowing you to simply survive much less allow you to freely participate in it?

How could it be possible that simply being born, your entire existence would be found to be criminal, that your every movement was suspect? What could it possibly feel like to know that your father and your father’s father endured the same humiliation and hopelessness as you and that you would never be able to protect your son from the same torment.

Yet, at the tail of 200 years of such hopeless existence, imagine the hope that came from the rumors that Lincoln, this leader that supposedly was over all other leaders, had given you freedom with his words. I cannot conceive of the mixture of cautious hope and cynical disillusion that might bring. Yet freedmen soldiers were marching past you in uniform brandishing guns of emancipation. And your oppressors were desperate with fear. Could change be imminent?

I have seen a modern version of such change, witnessing those lifting ink-stained thumbs high from their first vote. I have seen spirits lifted in America when Barack Obama gave his first presidential victory speech. What must it have been like to see men that only a moment before had been slaves and children of slaves, now accepting the oaths of local office and even Congress? What would it have been like to be handed a plot of land and given the encouragement to toil on your newly owned land for your family’s posterity? I can only imagine the sheer joy and relief from pain those early days brought.

How then must it have been to have all this immediate progress be pulled back as if it never occurred? How must it have been to have men come to your door and tell you that the land you have improved for the past two years since the war ended must now be given back? What must have been the confused anguish to then be told that you must sign a year sharecropping contract under duress or face being sent to prison for vagrancy? What must it have felt like to be visited upon by local men under the cover of cowardly hoods that let you know that this temporary government would soon be gone and that you were under their thumb? What terror would it bring to witness neighbors regularly lynched by this terrorist group and to see that nothing was done by those in this temporary government to stop it?

How could it have been to then live the rest of your life having briefly tasted this freedom to then be thrust back into terror, submission, and hopelessness? Now seeing the Union Army leaving, the Freedman’s Bureau disbanding, and all semblances of support closing offices and agencies and returning North, what was it like to be left defenseless in the world created by these unseen men, these wealthy terrorists that designed the life that you must now endure?

Sitting here in my comfortable home, I still thought having endured the economic crisis of 2008, the world that our unseen atmosphere benders created for us, was a hardship. Yet, compared to the world that millions endured in America’s freedmen’s first tragic steps toward freedom, our inequitable world is all the more tolerable. Should it be now that we should continue to tolerate the aftermath of such terrorism as occurred in 1865? If we have the ability to at least imagine the multigenerational waves of aftermath that it wrought on our fellow citizens, and we have the will to end the blight, can we call on our modern silent atmosphere benders to finally resolve the destruction of the past in ways that benefit all?

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Filed under Class warfare, Racism, social trajectory

America’s First Warriors Against Terror Cry Out For Justice

gravesThroughout history, societies that have optimized order through organization of men, equipment, energy, resources, and technologies, have dominated commerce. Control of men, of the land they tilled, of armies, or slaves was the dominating motive force of wealth creation prior to the industrial era, when energy began to supplant man as the motive force of progress.

Prior to the Civil War, Slaves were the economic engine for America, and the driver of its economy. While the North had much of the industry of America, the South had cotton and four million slaves. Cotton made the Southern United States one of the four most prosperous economies in the world and northern industry, which was internationally uncompetitive, depended on trade with southern states.

To enforce trade, Northern Congressmen pushed tariffs through a Congress dominated by the North, since the North had two thirds of the population. Tariffs allowed the North to skim slave-derived cotton profits through interstate trade. The North depended on southern purchases and attempted to prevent war that would hurt both economies severely. Yet when the South seceded for reasons of tariffs and slavery, destruction of the South’s economy was inevitable.

The minimal physical infrastructure that existed in the South was devastated by the war. And human capital…40 percent of white males of war age were wounded or killed. The bonds held by wealthy southern landowners that had funded the war were now worthless. Congress increased tariffs even more punitively after the war, imposing reparation costs on the South. And the vast wealth of the South, its slaves, was emancipated without compensation to owners.

The Southern Elite had pinned their economic future on the plantation system. Southern farmland was poor soil for growing staple crops that thrived in the North and Midwest, and cotton was highly labor dependent. The success of the plantation strategy therefore relied on a grotesque caste system, which instilled in slaves that they were incapable of anything but their deprived existence. Now that the North had torn apart this caste paradigm, the Southern elites believed their very survival depended on once again entrapping their labor. They chose terror as their weapon.

The ensuing black codes were an oppressive start. Plantation Owners passed vagrancy laws to imprison former slaves who did not sign annual share cropping contracts. And freedmen that tried to leave the South could be pulled off the train and imprisoned for similar reasons. Anyone caught coming to the South to recruit Freedmen could be imprisoned unless, as an example, they purchased $25,000 recruitment licenses. More monstrously oppressive were the 4,500 lynchings that took place all over the South to send freedmen the signal that they were no longer free.

What had been 4,000 of the wealthiest men in the United States now dragged four million souls through constant terror and degradation to save what was left of their fortunes. And while the northern administrators initially fought back, Northern Congressmen ultimately decided that continued bondage was in the best interests of their constituents, ending Reconstruction.

Was the victor of the Civil War actually going to accept the outcome of Reconstruction as simply a means to reunite the states and to recommence commerce? Was this going to be the final resolution to the loss of 620,000 American lives? This political compromise of the wealthy powers meant that those soldiers who spilled blood to give an oppressed people the hope of a free American life, would as a ghostly choir now transfix on a distant future silently aggrieved.

Some say that Supreme Court decisions reflect more the slowly changing mores of America than an objective rendering of the Constitution. In 1883, when it ruled protection of ex slaves’ civil rights as unconstitutional, it supported pre-civil war racist views of both the South and North that allowed southern states to re-install oppressive control of ex-slaves.

For the next thirty years, the South and North would suspend racial justice while allowing real terror of lynch mobs to roam free. How would generations of injustice and poverty affect a subculture of righteous anger within the African American community? How would it ultimately impact our inner cities?

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Filed under American Politics, Class warfare, Racism, Uncategorized, War