Slavery didn’t end with the surrender of Confederate forces in 1865. In his recent Pullitzer Prize-winning book, Wall Street Journal reporter Douglas A. Blackmon writes, “the great record of forced labor across the South [after the Civil War] demands that any consideration of the progress of civil rights remedy in the United States must acknowledge that slavery, real slavery, didn’t end until 1945.” In his readable, well-researched, and ground-breaking book, Blackmon shows how practices that let local police to arrest, imprison and sell African Americans into forced labor allowed manufacturing, mining, railroad, agribusiness, and financial corporations to reap tremendous profits between the close of the Civil War and World War II.
This regime of forced labor arose in the context following the Civil War and Reconstruction. The Radical Republicans, as they were known, held leadership in Congress immediately following the war and passed a civil rights agenda that included the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, forbidding slavery, providing citizenship and equal protection, and voting rights for African American men. They passed the Civil Rights Act of 1870 that allocated federal resources to the enforcement of these laws. They moved millions of dollars into building public schools and universities for “freedmen.” In some places African Americans gained land ownership. African Americans were elected to local, state, and federal offices in the hundreds. For a brief historical moment it appeared as though the seeds of equality could be planted for African Americans who comprised approximately 40 percent of the former Confederacy, but who had been excluded from political representation or economic power.