My work has exposed me to hearing first-hand accounts of a range of human rights violations including arbitrary arrest, brutal beatings, gang rape, amputations, beheadings, cannibalism, captivity, and sex slavery. In trying to understand how people could reach such depths of depravity, I was struck by the reality that these violations occurred in a theatre of war and/or under the reign of a dictatorship. This understanding did not excuse the severity of the crime but it placed brutality and cruelty within a surreal context. With more and more exposure, this surreal context became a grey zone where it was difficult to make unequivocal statements about culpability.
The focus of my work has recently shifted and I am beginning to delve into American history and the violations that have been committed against African-Americans. I was not ignorant of this past nor did I or do I have a glossy view of the U.S.’ current human rights record, but it has nonetheless, been a humbling experience.
I’m looking at the post U.S. Civil War-the end of slavery. Yet, gross forms of human rights violations against freed African-Americans continued, namely in the form of segregation and convict leasing**. I’ve been shocked at the abhorrent conditions under which leased convicts, primarily African-Americans, labored at private farms and mining companies starting in the aftermath of the Civil War continuing till the 1940s. Those working conditions were disturbingly similar to conditions of captivity under the Revolutionary United Front-a Sierra Leonean rebel faction. Segregation not only created a separate, unequal system, it allowed for a climate of terror, which had parallels with accounts Haitians made about living under a repressive dictatorship. But the U.S. was neither a dictatorship nor were we at war when these human rights violations were being committed in the U.S.
How, then, could these abuses happen? The answer I am finding is not novel. It involves an extensive web of culpability as is well-illustrated by the convict leasing abuses. One can first look to the guards at the work sites. The guards treated these men as less than humans, using leather whips to enforce excessive daily quotas. But employers-prominent businessmen-not the guards, established the quotas and the work conditions. The conditions were such that many died, and for some this death sentence could have been for a concocted crime or petty theft. Sheriffs and local court officials respectively arrested and convicted African-Americans as, like for the employers, convict leasing was profitable for them too. Yes, this system was authorized by state law. A number of state legislatures (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Texas) passed laws creating the conditions under which convict leasing flourished as a means of exploitable and cheap labor for businessmen, which in turn benefited the state.
At the turn of the century, the Federal Government investigated incidents of peonage and involuntary servitude in Alabama, Florida, and Georgia. A U.S. Attorney in Alabama also tried to prosecute such cases with an aim to eradicate the practice. A small handful of defendants pleaded guilty but the number was insufficient to dismantle the system. In face of the prevalence and profitability of the system, the Federal Government lacked sufficient political will to fully pursue the cases. The U.S. District Court Judge in Alabama also realized that no matter how substantial the evidence might be against this new form of slavery, sentiments of racism and white supremacy would likely cloud a rational assessment of the cases by juries. Consequently, it took decades before this system of “slavery” ended.
It equally took decades to overturn the legal system of segregation that was also installed in the aftermath of the U.S. Civil War. Again, evidence of the injustice existed, and culpability was extensive. Photos of lynchings starkly depict the climate of fear that reigned. Some of these photos also point to the wider public’s engagement: it is not so rare to find photos of lynchings with bystanders smiling as if they were at an entertainment event rather than the scene of a murder. Similar to the power of juries, the approval of these bystanders allowed, in part, for these crimes to go unpunished.
Chuck Morgan,*** a white lawyer in Birmingham captured extensive culpability in a speech following the death of three girls in one of many church bombings that earned the city the name “Bombingham” in the 50s and 60s:
“And who is really guilty? Each of us. Each citizen who has not consciously attempted to bring about peaceful compliance with the decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States, each citizen who has ever said ‘they ought to kill that nigger,’ every citizen who votes for the candidate with the bloody flag [Confederate Flag]; every citizen and every school board member and school-teacher and principal and businessman and judge and lawyer who has corrupted the minds of our youth; every person in this community who has in any way contributed during the past several years to the popularity of hatred is at least as guilty, or more so, than the demented fool who threw that bomb.”
Morgan’s words lay bare a culpability that I had appreciated, but one which I did not have to consider so plainly until I began looking at human rights violations in my own country, which was a democratic state and was not at war during these times. This type of culpability is even more difficult to rationalize, but to prevent reoccurrences of the same or those of a similar nature we need to understand the causes. It is also disturbing to have to admit that this is part of my country’s history and therein part of my American identity too.
* A longer version of this post discussing experiences aboard can be found on my personal blog http://www.journeytoreconciliation.com/blog.html
** For more on convict leasing see Blackmon, D., “Slavery by Another Name, The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II,” Anchor Books, New York, 2008.
*** Charles Morgan’s full speech can be found in his autobiography: Morgan, C., “A Time to Speak, The story of a young American lawyer’s struggle for his city and for himself,” Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, 1964.