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Corporations in Alabama profited from 'slavery in all but name'

By Greg Godels

People's Weekly World

In a remarkable article entitled "From Alabama's Past, Capitalism and Racism in a Cruel Partnership" (Wall Street Journal (WSJ) 7/16) staff reporter, Douglas A. Blackmon chronicled one of the most brutal, inhuman and, heretofore, unmentioned atrocities in American history. The article carries a powerful punch appearing in the newspaper that most consistently apologizes for the capitalist system.

Blackmon's research showed that for over a 60-year period ending in 1928, well over 100,000 mostly indigent African-American men living in Alabama were pressed into forced labor on private farms, construction sites, railroads and mines. As many as 30,000 died while working with minimal health care, housing and food and enduring unsafe conditions, savage beatings and torture.

With the removal of Federal troops from the South at the end of Reconstruction, the old powers moved quickly to impose a system resembling the antebellum system in every way except restoration of the institution of slavery. The position of Black workers as "free" laborers left them without even the patronizing "protection" afforded by their status as property, the article argues.

In Alabama, the local and state authorities collaborated with the business and corporate powers to impose a system of forced labor, slavery "in all but name," Blackmon writes.

The Alabama criminal-judicial system became a veritable press gang for forcing able-bodied African-American males into private sector servitude. Arrested and convicted on trivial and trumped-up charges, they were assigned to work under brutal, inhuman conditions.

The biggest user of forced labor in Alabama was the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company, a division of the U.S. Steel Corporation.

Minor offenses like vagrancy, foul language, gambling, having sex with whites - all part of the post-Civil War "Black codes" - would serve as a cover for police and sheriffs to round up African Americans.

After summary conviction, the prisoners were invariably unable to raise the cost of their arrest, incarceration and fines. Tennessee Coal would contract with local authorities to compensate them for costs, plus a monthly fee, for the work.

The convicts were graded according to health and ability. If they were unable to meet their production goals, they were subject to whipping. Records show that at the Flat Top mine, which had 165 prisoners, 137 whippings were reported in one month in 1899. Another report noted that miners often did not see the sun for months.

The Wall Street Journal estimated that convict labor generated between $225 and $285 million (in today's dollars) for the state of Alabama in the first two decades of the twentieth century. While figures are not available for county and municipal receipts, one report claimed that Jefferson County, with Birmingham its largest city, received approximately $1.1 million (today's dollars) in 1908 from U.S. Steel's division alone.

Given the low labor costs, the rate of exploitation was astronomical, affording the participating corporations a decided competitive edge over competitors using free labor.

Besides U.S. Steel, another leading exploiter of forced labor in the mines was Pratt Consolidated. Today that firm has been absorbed by the Drummond Coal Company, a privately held firm that today owns mines in Alabama and Colombia. While Drummond accepts no responsibility for the Alabama atrocities, it operates the second largest coal mine in Colombia under conditions of terror that may well rival Alabama in the early twentieth century.

As recounted by David Bacon in the July 23 issue of In These Times, Drummond refuses to protect its workers at the Loma mine in northern Colombia from the harassment, torture and murder of right-wing death squads. This clearly has a dampening effect upon labor organizing and activism. As a result, workers in the Colombian mine earn a third or less than their U.S. counterparts. Drummond has seized this opportunity to close five mines in Alabama and expand production at Loma to 11.8 million tons per year.

W ith the exception of an

enthusiastic column by Alexander Cockburn, the WSJ article has been met with a deafening silence by the mainstream and liberal press. Clearly, the U.S. media is engaged only by human rights violations and atrocities occurring in other countries.

"These documents chronicle another chapter in the history of corporate involvement in racial abuses in the last century," Blackmon writes. "A $4.5 billion fund set up by German corporations, after lawsuits and intense diplomatic pressure from the U.S. and others, began making payments last month to the victims of Nazi slave-labor programs during the 1930s and 1940s. Japanese manufacturers have come under heavy criticism for their alleged use of forced labor during the same period. Swiss banks agreed in 1998 to a $1.25 billion settlement of claims related to the seizure of Jewish assets during the Holocaust."

The new revelations give persuasive force to the call for reparations by the U.S. government to the descendants of African slaves. Critics have evaded this issue arguing that slavery was an event of the distant past and that no one today has a claim to receive or a duty to provide restitution to the victims of the slave trade, slavery, or even the forced labor endured in Alabama as recently as 1928. Similarly, they dismiss any claims arising from 20th century segregation and discrimination because they are not based on forced labor.

As Blackmon notes, "But in the U.S., recurrent calls for reparations to the descendants of pre-civil war slaves have made little headway. And there has been scant debate over compensating victims of 20th century racial abuses involving businesses."

Indeed, the Bush administration has decided to boycott the United Nations' World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa because a discussion of reparations for slavery is on the agenda. (The U.S. also opposes a discussion of the racist aspects of Zionist ideology.)

But the disclosure of persistent and institutional forced labor in Alabama demonstrates the appropriateness of reparations. As with the European reparations for the victims of the Nazi system, claims can be constructed from records of the costs and benefits of the system. For example, an accounting of the unpaid labor and injuries incurred by forced labor employed by U.S. Steel , now USX, and the Drummond Coal Company could be determined. Claims for restitution and damages might be pressed on this basis.

Moreover, the Alabama system constitutes an unbroken bridge back to the slave system. With the exception of the period of Federal occupation, Alabama and its economic institutions have engaged in forced, unpaid labor from 1928 back to the arrival of the first slave.

This effectively demolishes the argument that slavery was an event of the distant past with no relevance or consequences for today.

Looking beyond Blackmon's vital historical research, it is important to notice the limits of reformism. While the abolition of slavery was a great and historic achievement, it failed to fundamentally change the economic relations of the Old South.

Forced labor reappeared systematically because the old economic and political powers were not dispersed, and former slaves were insufficiently empowered. Without economic and political power, the former slaves and their potential allies were effectively disenfranchised from the bourgeois democracy of the South.

The effects of forced labor crippled the potential of free labor to organize and win better wages and working conditions. Marx's famous warning that white labor can never be free as long as Black labor is in bondage proved applicable well after the formal elimination of slavery. We now understand even more clearly why labor organization has proven so difficult in the South.

Not only forced labor, but prison labor in general, poses a threat to free labor. Those states restoring prison labor are attacking the wages and working conditions of free labor, particularly in the public sector. Prisoners are assigned jobs that normally would command prevailing wages, thus reducing the number of decent paying jobs available.

Would forced labor have been possible without the deep-seated, widespread racist ideology of the time? Clearly not, since the practice of forced labor only ended with public outrage over the torture and death of a white man in the Alabama mines.

As Blackmon reports, James Knox suffered a heart attack after being held upside down in a barrel of water by guards. Reported as a suicide, newspaper scrutiny of the case eventually led to the elimination of the system in 1928. Without this death, the system might have continued much longer.

The racist ideology that justified forced labor in Alabama permeated the entire fabric of U.S. society. Recent revelations have shown that even a bastion of liberal respectability like Yale University has many sordid links to the slave trade.

According to recent research, eight of Yale's 12 colleges are named after slaveholders, four of whom were identified as pro-slavery activists. While Yale has often acknowledged its ties to the abolitionist movement, it appears to have far more links to slaveholders and pro-slavery machinations. Some have suggested that Yale should reserve several scholarships for descendants of slaves as an act of restitution.

It should come as no surprise that public officials and media pundits will be hesitant and tepid in their condemnation of these shameful chapters in our nation's history. As the WSJ headline clearly states, "capitalism and racism struck a cruel partnership" in Alabama.


Black workers in Alabama fought back

The late Hosea Hudson organized Local 2815 of the United Steelworkers (USWA) in Birmingham and served as its first local president. A leader of the Communist Party of Alabama, he was in the thick of the struggle to save the Scottsboro Nine, and end the system of near-slavery in the mines and mills of U.S. Steel and its subsidiary, Tennessee Coal and Iron Company.

In his memoir, Black Worker in the Deep South (International Publishers, 1972), Hudson shows that during the 1930s and 1940s, the USWA, Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers (MMSW) and other unions made major gains based on victories in uniting Black and white workers. Using racism, and its evil twin anti-Communism, those advances were smashed during the Cold War, when Hudson was blacklisted and MMSW was expelled from the CIO as "Communist led."

By Hosea Hudson

The time was ripe for organizations to rise up and struggle against oppressive conditions as well as the persecutions and legal lynchings of innocent Black men - as typified in the Scottsboro Case ...

When the CIO came into the picture, Black steel workers in small miscellaneous shops joined because they felt this was what they were looking for. But it was difficult to convince the majority of the whites of the importance of coming into the union and struggling alongside the Black workers ...

Beginning in the Depression period, John L. Lewis had sent in men to organize the coal miners. Although many of the CIO unions had a straightforward position on the rights of Negroes in the mines, the Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers (MMSW) had the most forthright program and fought hardest in the union and in the mines to carry it out.

Both coal and ore miners had strikes, beginning in 1934 and running through 1938. But from 1934 through 1936, when strikes were called and the miners faced the National Guard on the mountains, there were many times when these mountains became battlefields - they were unlike ordinary strike struggles.

The ore miners - a group of 150 or 200 of them - were blacklisted because they had been active in the unions ... They couldn't get jobs and they went on struggling under the leadership of MMSW until about 1938 when the [National] Labor Relations Board held a hearing in Birmingham. It lasted several months and I was able to drop in once in a while. Superintendents of some of the mine companies were put on the stand, as well as many of the ore miners who testified that they were beaten up, evicted from their houses and made to suffer other abuses.

The ruling that came out of this hearing was that the miners had to be put back on their jobs and paid for every work day the mine had kept them out ... This was a heartbreaking decision so far as the industrialists of Jefferson County were concerned, particularly for Tennessee Coal and Iron, which appealed the decision to Washington. But they couldn't get the ruling changed. Then they wanted to pay the miners by the month - $30 a month - which the Roosevelt government wouldn't accept either, so they had to pay off the miners in lump sums.

"Slave-like" forced labor long after slavery was supposed to be abolished.

Henrietta Day, daughter of Richard Day Sr married Armstead Handy. Armstead packed up the family and left farming for the promise of decent regular pay. Armstead worked the Coal Mines in Jefferson county Alabama, for the Tennessee Coal and Iron company in the 1920's as did Thomas Robert Day from about 1916 to 1928. Armstead was later joined by his son Leon to mine by the 1930 census.

The following article depicts what life was like for many black miners and railroad workers in the South. Particularly those young black men working for Tennessee Coal and Iron in Jefferson County, Alabama.

Original article here:

Linked toF629; Thomas Robert Day

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