Economic recovery depended on cheap labor

I’ve been re-reading David Oshinsky’s book Worse Than Slavery. It’s about the ways the Southern states found, after the Civil War, to continue exploiting black labor after and despite the abolition of slavery; it culminates with an account of Parchman Farm, Mississippi’s nightmarish state prison.

The Washington Post has the whole first chapter. Let’s start with the Mississippi governor in 1865. The state was a ruin.

In the fall of 1865, Governor Benjamin G. Humphreys addressed the “negro problem” before a special session of the Mississippi legislature. A planter by profession and a general during the war, Humphreys had campaigned for office in a “thrice-perforated” army coat shot through with Yankee lead. Like other leading Confederates, he had at first been excluded from participating in the South’s postwar political affairs. But President Andrew Johnson had pardoned the general, and hundreds like him, in remarkably short order. Humphreys received his pardon on October 5, 1865, just three days after winning the governor’s race in a landslide.(24)

His speech about the Negro was a major event, the first of its kind by a Southern governor since the Confederate defeat. “Under the pressure of federal bayonets.” Humphreys began, “. . . the people of Mississippi have abolished the institution of slavery.” That decision was final; there could be no turning back. “The Negro is free, whether we like it or not; we must realize that fact now and forever.”(25)

But freedom had its limits, Humphreys continued. It protected the Negro’s person and property but did not guarantee him political or social equality with whites. Indeed the “purity and progress” of both races required a strict caste system, with blacks accepting their place in the lower order of things. And that place–literally–was the cotton field of the south. Since economic recovery depended on a ready supply of Negro labor, the new system, like the old one, must reward the faithful field hand and punish the loafer. Such was the rule of the plantation, said Humphreys, and the “law of God.”

In the following days, the legislature passed a series of acts known collectively as the Black Codes. Their aim was to control the labor supply, to protect the freedman from his own “vices,” and to ensure the superior position of whites in southern life. “While some of [these acts] may seem rigid and stringent to sickly modern humanitarians,” the legislators declared, “the wicked and improvident, the vagabond and meddler, must be smarted [and] reformed.” Others agreed. The Mississippi Black Codes were copied, sometimes word for word, by legislators in South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas.

And that’s the core of the whole story right there. It’s horribly simple. Mississippi was fertile land for growing cotton but the work is horrible and so is the climate. What to do? Nominate a caste of people who have to do the labor. Before the war it was literal explicit slavery; after the war it was slavery disguised as judicial punishment. How to do that? Make not working a crime for that caste. Make it a crime to quit a job, make it a crime to seek higher pay, make it a crime to move around, make it a crime to offer higher pay.

The Black Codes listed specific crimes for the “free negro” alone: “mischief,” “insulting gestures” “cruel treatment to animals,” and the “vending of spiritous or intoxicating liquors.” Free blacks were also prohibited from keeping firearms and from cohabiting with whites. The penalty for intermarriage, the ultimate taboo, was “confinement in the State penitentiary for life.”

At the heart of these codes were the vagrancy and enticement laws, designed to drive ex-slaves back to their home plantations. The Vagrancy Act provided that “all free negroes and mulattoes over the age of eighteen” must have written proof of a job at the beginning of every year. Those found “with no lawful employment . . . shall be deemed vagrants, and on conviction . . . fined a sum not exceeding . . . fifty dollars.” The Enticement Act made it illegal to lure a worker away from his employer by offering him inducements of any kind. Its purpose, of course, was to restrict the flow (and price) of labor by forcing plantation owners to stop “stealing” each other’s Negroes.

Frighteningly tidy, isn’t it; all exits locked and barred and nailed shut.

Reconstruction got in the way for awhile, but only for awhile.

So this is part of our filthy history, we Americans. Ferguson is like a day at the beach in comparison.


  1. Katherine Woo says

    Ferguson seems like a ‘day at the beach’ compared to the Rodney King Riots. At the time I was in mortal terror that rioters would break in and rape and murder us at the time. And let me tell you, no one should experience that. It never leaves you.

    With regard to Ferguson has anyone besides Brown actually died? Over fifty people died in L.A. in 1992. I keep hearing terms like “warzone” bandied about, which frankly is shameless that trivializes what people in real warzones face.

    And why were the 92 riots so bad? The LAPD basically closed up shop for a few days and citizens were left to defend ourselves, something privileged leftist who are not merely for common-sense gun control, but are stridently anti-individual gun rights should remember.

    I don’t like the culture of police non-accountability either and that has to change. But this ‘militarization’ rhetoric is more complex. Do we want police who are inferiorly armed relative to criminals? Do we want criminals to feel that fighting police has a chance of success, versus overwhelming force defusing situations? These are complex issues, but I most see 140-character thinking on complex issues.

  2. smrnda says


    The cops (if you’ve noticed) don’t protect the public, nor do they risk their own safety very oftne. They’ve got their own agenda. When it comes to using force, they’ll only do so if they’re really not going to be at risk. This is why they’ll bust out riot gear in Ferguson, but walk away from Cliven Bundy, or avoid an actual riot zone, possibly since they regard the public as expendable, and don’t see ‘protect the public’ as part of their duties. They’re sitting around, waiting until, without risk to their own safety, they can play with their toys.

  3. Katherine Woo says


    I think the weapons seem like “toys” rather than necessary ‘tools,’ because of the psychology of police we recruit.

    Were I a police officer I would damn well want body armor and automatic weapons as an option because if the threat level of some well-armed, ruthless criminals. But as you say, the “toy” mentality encourages over application, a situation that ultimately relates to accountability for bad decisions. If they feared misuse of their “toys” they would be more likely to only use them when a situation truly warrants it.

    Police are humans and I feel any of us as police might accidentally shoot an unarmed person in certain circumstances. The problem is the military backgrounds and general authoritarian and/or cowboy mentalities that seem to end as police are likely to be more error prone.

  4. quixote says

    Katherine Woo, what you’re really saying is the same thing the black people of Ferguson are saying: if you want peace, work for justice.

    The way to turn Ferguson into LA ’92 (well, besides adding a hundred thousand people to the mix) is to keep ignoring the biased behavior of the authorities. Then it won’t be one death. Or fifty deaths. Go far enough with crap and you can wind up with millions of deaths. (Citation: all of history.)

    Arming the police, when it’s done in the context of injustice, makes the problem worse. Something we’ve seen play out over and over, too.

    I do agree that you want justice to be stronger than crime. I’m only not sure that I agree with your definition of which is which.

  5. Brony says

    I posted this on PZ’s Lounge. It might not look relevant at first, but it’s useful because it contains these phenomena.

    Relevant to larger issues. Minority communities experience the effects of economic problems more intensely and faster than others and there are larger patterns at work. This might help in getting through to others.

    Essentially there may be a larger pattern at work where the wealth gap and specialized workers with no jobs help to create “boom and bust” cycles. Competition among people for jobs is where the institutionalized racism and bigotry comes into play.

  6. Brony says

    #6 is not to minimize the elements that are producing the institutional and social racism. That has to be addressed. But it does provide a context in which the more privileged groups use bias and racism to advantage themselves.

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