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Southern Spaces
A journal about real and imagined spaces and places of the US South and their global connections

But what does it take to change the system? When I was a teenager, growing up in Centreville, I longed in my body, without words, to leave behind me the hopeless poverty I saw when I rode with my mother, who was a social worker, on her home visits—when I saw other children, white children, Black children, in rags or running naked in the dust beside their houses of weathered or tar-paper pine boards, their homes leaning as if they might blow over in the next big storm. The poverty pierced with me with terrible pain, and I didn't know what to do about it.

The only answer I'd ever been given to that poverty was to hope in another world, to work for the treasure in heaven. So I sat waiting for Mama in the car, reading the Bible, opening the book of Revelations, longing for the place after death where there would be no weeping, nor sorrow.

That was my only answer then. But then I was still alone. I didn't know, as I do now, how other people have struggled to make a different life on earth. I didn't know there was a place for me in that struggle. I, along with so many others before and after me, had to learn exactly where I was located, had to overcome the forcible blanking out of our struggle history in the US, the history that was whited out of my education under segregation.

It was ironic, really, to hear my cousin talking of others taking our money, when he and I are both from a family that settled in River Bend, Bibb County, on land seized from the Creek Nation during the so-called Indian Wars under Andrew Jackson. My great-grandfather Williams, whose daughter I'm named for, claimed his acreage on the Cahaba River as a "bonus"—as in for doing something good—for fighting native nations in those wars. And from the time of settling there in the 1830s until the end of the Civil War, our family were slave-owners, holding African American people as property, enslaving them to farm cotton on that river land.

Our history is not unusual in the US—to be white people descended from Scot-Irish, emigrants, fleeing poverty in Europe, moving from the eastern seaports of the US further south and east, looking for cheap land — sometimes unwitting, and sometimes conscious in our complicity with the seizure and occupation of the land from native people, complicity with the racist ideologies propagated to justify colonization, to justify the enslavement of people to work the land. White people offered a parcel of land, a promise of safety, a fantasy of superiority and supremacy, an illusion of security, if we allied ourselves with the big landowning interests, the big money interests, against people of color in the land.

Eddie and I both had graduated from a high school where our sports teams were, and still are, called the Fighting Choctaws—where we'd learned virtually nothing of the history of native people, nor of the Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, Cherokee still living in the South, in the US We came up through segregated schools, and when Brown vs. Board of Education was finally implemented completely in Alabama in the 1970s, much of the equipment and physical assets of the so-called "white" schools were taken by white-controlled school boards and sent into the newly-established "Christian" academies.

And that racist agenda is still in our hometown in its latest twist, like the two columns published side by side recently in the Centreville Press—one announcing Martin Luther King's commemoration on January 19, and right next to it, "General Robert E. Lee Remembered on January 19." On that page, the struggle continues still over our collective history. On a following page was an announcement of a meeting for all those who wanted to learn the "true history" of the state, to counteract the Alabama history taught in the high school now, which was dismissed as "nothing but civil rights"—a meeting for those hanging on to the old racist interpretation of history, re-labeled "white southern heritage."

In Tuscaloosa, just thirty miles from my home, people at the University of Alabama have been going through their own struggle about history and culture. In early 2004 there was a hate crime against the NAACP office, then an action by the Renewed Alliance for Cultural Education to counter that hate and forge solidarity for anti-racist work in the student body, and then the attacks on "multiculturalism" in the letters to the editor of the Tuscaloosa News ("An Office"; Hallman).

It's significant that one of those hate-filled letters linked "multiculturalism" to "globalization"—and complained about the outsourcing of "good" US jobs overseas and the "influx" of immigrants into the country. The writer glorified "white Southern heritage," once again using the racist and divisive tactic of making other working people, here and in other countries, the enemy.

How do we counter this tactic? How do we break through to the understanding that there are more of us working here at the bottom, than there are in the class at the top that enforces inequality and reaps the benefit from our work? If we are divided from each other, the injustices continue—the unequal distribution of wealth, and justice, continues.

Let's consider just one way to build solidarity between working people — support for the movement for reparations for slavery. On the Tuscaloosa campus, Professor Alfred L. Brophy, in the Law School, raised reparations in relation to the fact that some of the University's antebellum "faculty owned slaves and advanced pro-slavery teachings in the classroom." He also pointed out that there is reason to believe that enslaved people's labor built some of the campus, in addition, surely, to other, not yet known, connections of the University to slavery. And, of course, Professor Brophy's call is part of a national movement toward reparations, which raises the important question of how to redress the injustice of hundreds of years of slavery in the US (Cruz).

Surely by now, because of the great Black civil rights struggles that have been fought—so many of them right here in this state — we comprehend the horrendous injustice of slavery, the kidnapping of millions of people from Africa, the stealing of their lives from them, and then the theft of their labor for hundreds of years, with no recompense. But, all too often, a discussion of reparations for this loss of life and loss of recompense can be trivialized and rejected with comments about how long ago slavery occurred, how people now (that is, white people) aren't responsible for the sins of their fathers, and so forth.

But if we look at the economic consequences of slavery, as those consequences have accumulated in the lives of subsequent generations, including through this very moment, the seriousness of the issue of reparations becomes more apparent. And a call for reparations raises an important challenge to the current economic structure based on profit.

The economic consequences of slavery on people of the African diaspora did not end with the Emancipation Proclamation. Instead, during the period called "the Reconstruction" in the southern US—1860-1880—freed slaves struggled to make a revolution in this country—a revolution that would have meant legal, social and economic equality with their former owners. This "unfinished revolution" was stopped by a counterrevolution that followed in 1877—the consequences of which endured legally until the civil rights movement of the 1960s and economically to this day.

When, in 1865, Union troops began to move into the defeated slave states of the Confederacy, under the auspices of a few Union generals, freed people who had been held as slaves began to occupy and farm independently some of the land of the white slavocracy. For instance, the 10,000-acre plantation of Jefferson Davis, former President of the Confederacy, was declared a "home colony," placed under the protection of a Black regiment, and the land was farmed cooperatively by newly freed people who set up self-government (Allen, 48).

The ability to claim and farm land was central to freedom for Black people in the US after slavery, most of whom lived in the South, and in the rural South. There were few towns, and few non-agrarian jobs available, and most Black people were farm workers. After Emancipation, the newly freed people needed land simply to survive—to feed themselves and their families—and to move out of servitude.

But the southern white slavocracy, though defeated militarily, was determined not to be subdued economically. Immediately after the War and the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment that formally emancipated all slaves, the Southern white governments of the former slave states began to pass a series of laws that attempted to return freed slaves to a de facto bondage. Beginning in Mississippi in 1865, these so-called "Black Codes" appeared to grant Black people certain legal rights for the first time, such as the right to marry. But in reality the Codes "were promulgated to control a newly fluid Black labor force" (Wunder 819).

Through these laws, and the vigilante violence of white terror that enforced the Codes, the southern plantation owners attempted to keep freed slaves bound to their land, in a kind of legal peonage. Their aim was to prevent freed slaves from becoming free labor, people able to sell their labor as workers. The passing of the Codes was an attempt to continue slavery. In the post-war landscape, this meant an attempt to impose the most extreme form of wage-slavery possible.

But just as enslaved Africans had fought back from the moment they were kidnapped and landed on the shores of the New World, newly freed Black people resisted the re-imposition of slavery. In the revolutionary period of Reconstruction, they developed new tools of resistance—the Union Leagues with its local Councils, armed citizen's militias, and people's assemblies that developed into state constitutional assemblies in the late 1860s (Allen 73-78, 91-95, 166-122; DuBois 680).

For the ten years after the end of the Civil War, there was battle after battle in the countryside and small towns of the South, as the African American population, and some white allies, tried to liberate their land. Every act toward freedom was a struggle—one witness recounted Black women and men in Mississippi marching to the voting polls "after the manner of soldiers, armed with clubs and sticks, some of them with old swords and pieces of scythe blades" (Allen 96). The control of the larger state legislatures, and public resources and economic destinies, depended on these smaller battles (Pratt, "Black Reconstruction").

But the greatest significance in these struggles lay in the fact that the battle of African Americans for their basic democratic rights (the right to vote, to testify in court, to form civil contracts such as marriage) was completely, inextricably, and openly linked to their fight for economic justice. If they could not win re-distribution of land, through outright occupation—or through reparations legislation such as the "forty acres" grants proposed by abolitionists like Thaddeus Stevens—then newly freed Black people would have no material basis for survival, and no way to stand against the seizure of their newly won rights by a resurgent slavocracy.

And the southern slavocracy was not fighting these battles alone. Northern capital had its own agenda in the waging of the Civil War and also in the establishment of peace. In the earliest days of the American colonies, fortunes had been made in the North on slave-trading. This was the money that seeded the ultimate rise of such corporations as FleetBank, Aetna Insurance, CSX Railroad—or USX, which had merged with US Steel, which had merged with Tennessee Coal & Iron, an Alabama corporation that used the de facto slavery of the convict lease system, and that traces its origins back to businesses using slave labor (Cox).

After the war, northern corporations went after more riches in the South. One post-war article in a northern newspaper praised the education of freed slaves as an opportunity for textile manufacturers to "organize at our own doors a colony—so to speak—that will be worth more to us than any of England's most flourishing dependencies" (Allen, 195).

Vince Copeland succinctly described the support of northern capital for the old southern slavocracy: "To expropriate the land of the [former] slave owners (many of whom had financial ties to the merchant capital, etc., in the North) was also to question the legality of all huge land ownership. And at this very moment the big capitalists, especially the railroad companies, were getting land by the millions of acres from Congress, swindling the white masses as well as the Indians [Native Americans] in the process""(41).

Using the repression of the Black Codes and white terror, the slavocracy re-organized the old plantation system, worked by slave labor, into a system of sharecropping and share tenancy, which enabled cash-poor planters to minimize paying wages to farm workers. This system lasted in the South until the introduction and widespread use of tractors and mechanical cotton pickers in the 1940s and '50s. In the mostly rural South, freed Black people and impoverished whites were forced into this economic arrangement to survive.

Sharecroppers usually had only their labor to bargain with, no animals or tools. They depended on lien credit for necessities of life, and usually received no more than half the crop, from which interest and supplies were deducted, typically leaving them in life-long debt to the landlord. Two-thirds of southern tenants were white, and among sharecroppers, there were about equal numbers of Black and white farmers (Mertz).

The shared misery of the sharecropping system led to white and Black farm workers organizing in farmer unions. But the slavocracy mounted a vicious campaign to split white farm workers and urban working class from newly freed Black labor. Besides racist propaganda from public officials, state governments re-seized by the planter economic interests and by new southern industrial interests began to allocate money and benefits (like education) in a calculatedly racist manner.

For instance, states of the former Confederacy, like Alabama under its 1891 legal code, began to pay pensions to the "relief of needy confederate soldiers and sailors who from wounds or other cause are now unable to earn a livelihood by labor"—privileging indigent whites loyal to the slavocracy while throwing freed Black men and women into jail to be used as prison labor on the pretext of being "vagrants" because they had wandered searching for less oppressive landlords or more fair wages ("Tallapoosa County, Alabama: Civil War Pension").

But in the renewed onslaught of reaction in the South—where lynching of African American men and the rape of African American women became the most notorious terror methods of white ruling class interests—there was continued resistance.

Well-known to many is the anti-lynching campaign of Ida B. Wells-Barnett, for instance. Born a slave in Mississippi, she became a teacher and then also the editor of a Memphis newspaper, the Free Speech. In 1891, she lost her teaching job when she published articles criticizing the local school system's "unequal allocation of resources to Black schools" (Harley).

The next year marked the beginning of her life-long national campaign against lynching—including armed self defense—as she editorially denounced the murder of three local Black men on the pretext of raping a white woman. In fact, she revealed, all three had been targeted because their business pursuits threatened the white economic establishment (Wells-Barnett).

Resistance by African Americans, and some white allies, continued in every town and farm in the South, in places still not documented by historians. For instance, in 1899, in Bibb County, which had a population, Black and white, of no more than 5000 people then, the Black workers on a road detail engaged in an armed battle with their white overseer in resistance to their dire exploitation.

The precipitating incident, which must have come after many brutal indignities and assaults, was this. The white overseer, Mullen, sent one of the workers, John Sanders—who was Black—after water. On returning to the spring Sanders passed the water to other African Americans before giving it to Mullen.

In the fight that followed, the overseer was killed, as were some of the Black workers; others were later lynched. A few days later, a young white worker was beaten and driven out of the county by white vigilantes because of his expressing sympathy for the African Americans who killed overseer Mullins. This white man was seen going out armed, together with African Americans, in his neighborhood, saying that Mullins got what he deserved and that others would get the same ("Given 150 Lashes," "Overseer Killed: Conspiracy Formed by Negro Laborers to Murder Him").

A month later, when the Centreville Press reported a "crowd of [African Americans] armed in the woods" near Eoline, it also ran a story about a strike in the coal mines in Tuscaloosa County by the Black majority, but integrated ("Attempted Assassination," "Non-Union Men Killed").

So even as African Americans struggled for freedom from violence and from economic oppression in mostly rural arenas in the South, there was a parallel resistance in the Black urban working class. The first post-Civil War strike by southern women, for instance, was that of Black washer-women in July, 1865 in Jackson, Mississippi. They organized themselves into a "protective association" and raised their prices. In Alabama, ex-Union Black soldiers at the iron works in Birmingham went on strike in 1866. In Mobile, a strike of Black levee workers spread to the sawmills and smaller industries. And in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1871, there was a march of nearly 2000 workers, almost all African American, for the organization of a National Labor Union (Jones 72; Allen 166-167).

Meanwhile, the reactionary policies of the counter-revolution continued in the attempt by white land owners in the South to keep Black people from migrating north toward wage-paying jobs. The Black Codes were used against Black workers, for instance, during WWI, as they sought to travel to Northern industries, where labor was short because US policies were limiting immigrant labor. At the same time, Northern industrialists exploited Black workers who came north, using them as strike-breakers against unionizing white workers, and promulgating racism among white workers to keep white and Black workers from joining forces.

One instance of the super-exploitation of Black workers that resulted in worse working conditions and lower wages for white workers was the so-called "convict lease" system that grew out of the Codes. In this system, prisoners, the majority Black, were leased by the State at dramatically reduced wages, to "cotton, rice, sugarcane, and tobacco planters, coal mines, timber companies, railroad construction firms, and levee builders." The male and female prisoners, some as young as eight or nine years old, were fed inadequately, given little or no medical care, overworked, and physically abused (Carleton, 1502).

Though the system was officially phased out in the South by World War II, we can see its resurgence right now in the exploitation of prison labor by private companies like the Corrections Corporation of America, subcontracting with the states to hire out prisoners to work for US brand-name firms (Moorehead, "Mass Detentions").

"Competitive prison labor" means that companies like Starbucks, Microsoft, Victoria's Secret, and Boeing hire prisoners through CCA, and make profits off the labor of prisoners who are mostly people of color. In Tennessee, for instance, a CCA prison is allowed to pay prisoners a "maximum" of 50 cents an hour (Moorehead, "Prisons-for- Profit").

And what are the consequences of this continuation of the exploitation of prisoners for those of us who are supposedly "free labor"? The depression of wages for everyone, while those who are locked up are scapegoated and characterized as demonic.

So, when the call for reparations is made, we have a chance to be in solidarity with other working people, whose uncompensated labor, whose stolen wages, have generated untold profits for capitalist interests in the US. Those profits, and the accumulating wealth from them, came from the wages lost to freed Black people because they were forced into virtual peonage through the use of the Black Codes; money lost from the sale of the crops they labored to raise under sharecropping and share tenancy, money lost to landlords' inflated interest and lien credit, and the resulting lost equity and interest that did not come to them over the ensuing yearr; the lost wages in urban areas, where Black workers were paid unequally in relation to white workers. Reparations are due for all this, and for so much else — the education never given by the States, or given in unequal measure under segregation; for being held prisoner under de facto slavery and worked on prison farms, roads, industries, mines, plantations.

And from those of us who are not of the African diaspora, not descended from people enslaved in this country, to answer the call for reparations is to stand in solidarity with other working people, to acknowledge the exploitation of their lives and labor, to refuse to be divided from them. To answer the call for reparations is also to stand up for ourselves, to say that we know that this demand for justice will help build a unity that will mean all of us are stronger, and more able to resist exploitation.

* Transcript prepared by Minnie Bruce Pratt. Text may not exactly correspond to the video recording of Pratt's lecture available on Southern Spaces.

© 2004 Minnie Bruce Pratt and Southern Spaces