The violation was known as “vagrancy.” If you were a black man in the South following Reconstruction, and you were unable to show proof of employment on-demand to the police, you could be arrested and delivered into what Douglas Blackmon, author of Slavery by Another Name, called “neo-slavery.”
Beginning in the late 19th Century through World War II various Jim Crow laws required that African Americans carry pay stubs or, if they were lucky, a letter from an employer; some form of evidence proving to a police officer that they had a job.
Imagine you’re an African American in the South. Early 20th Century. What if you forgot to bring your employment papers with you one day? What if you were unaware of the anti-vagrancy law? Hell, what if you were simply unemployed? It might be your last mistake as a free citizen of the United States. Like so many other African American men of that era, you might be incarcerated, convicted and perhaps sold to a farming, mining or lumber operation. Yes, sold and ultimately disappeared. This happened long after the Civil War, long after the abolition of slavery and the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment. Slavery, it turned out, survived the war.
Nearly 50 years before Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington, a young African American son of slaves living in Alabama named Green Cottonham was arrested at a train station. We don’t know for sure what law Cottonham had violated to warrant his arrest because, at his trial, the arresting officer literally forgot the reason why Cottonham was picked up in the first place. So the charge of vagrancy was substituted. Cottonham was convicted and sentenced to 30 days of hard labor, but since he was poor and couldn’t afford to pay several intentionally punitive fines, the 30 day sentence grew to a year. He was carted off and “legally” sold for $12-a-month to U.S. Steel. At age 22, Green Cottonham was hustled into a coal mine as a manual laborer; he was occasionally whipped and tortured, eventually dying before the end of his sentence.
Vagrancy and a wide variety of other similar violations were intentionally broad and trivial — not intended to clean up the streets, but, instead, to suppress the advancement of blacks, as well as to feed the engines of agriculture and industry in the South with cheap, forced labor.
This was a back-door slave trade, ensnaring hundreds of thousands of African American men. The Southern judicial system, aided by ridiculous laws and kangaroo courts, became an above-boards means of rebuilding the Southern economy on the backs of slave laborers. And it flourished until just after Pearl Harbor when President Roosevelt asked the Justice Department to shut down the trade for fear the Germans and Japanese would use it in propaganda campaigns against the U.S.
Due to the efforts of Martin Luther King Jr. and so many other demonstrators who gathered in Washington, DC, along the National Mall 50 years ago today, the Jim Crow laws that provided free labor for the neo-slave trade ended (seemingly) with the signing of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. These were monumentally important events in the maturing of America; in the process of America’s evolution into a more civilized society.
Remarkably, however, there’s a malicious conspiracy underway to roll back the mandates of those advancements, 50 years later.
A new generation of Jim Crow-inspired legislation includes measures with cute nicknames like “Papers Please,” a descendant of vagrancy laws requiring that anyone who’s stopped by police in Arizona produce documentation verifying citizenship. Another racially-charged law in New York City of all places, far from the backwoods and bayous of the South, is called “stop-and-frisk,” allowing police officers to profile and pat-down anyone who they judge to have possible criminal intent. Guess who’s stopped-and-frisked most often.
The great irony with stop-and-frisk is that the real criminals are the tailored, preening white guys in lower Manhattan who are actively thinking of new ways to circumvent the Securities & Exchange Commission in the name of fueling the wealth of other tailored, preening white guys who are actively polluting our environment; who are selling us poisonous food; and who are marketing in slave labor both overseas and in the Midwest, exploiting undocumented workers smuggled across the border from Mexico. Indeed, the people who really ought to be stopped-and-frisked, aren’t.
Meanwhile, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that Voter ID laws, like the legislation that was recently passed in North Carolina, are designed to do one thing and one thing alone: disenfranchise minorities in order to improve the electoral odds of the monochromatic Republican Party. How do we know this? They’ve confessed to it. Repeatedly. Thanks to conservatives on the Supreme Court, a wave of new Voter ID bills were rushed into law following the atrocious Holder v Shelby County decision.
Concurrently, a wave of libertarian Republicans, bolstered by a recently minted alliance with far-left liberals, are determined to continue the pursuit of states’ rights. Nullification, a doctrine that claims to allow states to overturn or to simply ignore federal laws that are deemed by the state to be unconstitutional, combined with off-the-shelf libertarianism would initiate the unraveling of everything from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to the Voting Rights Act itself. In his remarks 50 years ago, Dr. King called out Alabama governor George Wallace for his “words of interposition and nullification.” 50 years later, the interposition/nullification standard-bearer is Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), a would-be 2016 presidential candidate.
Sometimes it’s difficult to tell whether all of this represents America’s penchant for slow progress or whether it’s an alarming backslide. One thing is quite clear: there’s a roiling assault on Dr. King’s dream. Like the neo-slavery laws of the old South, these recent moves toward a pre-March, pre-civil rights shift are part of a malevolent campaign by the Republican establishment to retain a seat at the table in the face of a growing minority population, as well as a slowly dying white majority.
Dr. King declared that 1963 wouldn’t be the end of black oppression, but, instead, the beginning of a process toward freedom and the American dream. Even though we’ve elected an African American president, African Americans are nearly unrepresented in the U.S. Senate where there isn’t single elected member. There’s only one sitting black governor, Deval Patrick, and only three in the last 50 years. African Americans continue to struggle with poverty as one-in-four exist below the federal level while the traditional route for advancing into the middle class is being rapidly eroded by deregulation and austerity. You’ll rarely if ever see photographs of prohibitively long lines at the polls in white upper-middle class precincts, or white investment bankers purged from voter rolls, and yet long lines in African American precincts and African American voter purges have become a depressing feature of every modern election cycle. And you’ll never, ever see a white guy from lower Manhattan, trading Altria and British Petroleum stocks on his Blackberry, stopped-and-frisked.
Dr. King challenged the United States to do better; to make good on the “promissory note” of our founding documents, while warning that we should never revisit the grotesque sins of our collective past. But we still have so much work to do, especially now, as a rogues gallery of enemies have lined up in harrowing opposition to his dream.