Book calls for re-examination of U.S. race history

Wed Apr 22, 2009 6:30am EDT
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By Matthew Bigg

ATLANTA (Reuters) - A Pulitzer Prize-winning book on a brutal aspect of U.S. history has reignited debate on the country's racial past just as the country's first black president is seen as evidence of racial progress.

"Slavery By Another Name" recounts the little-known story of how in the decades after President Abraham Lincoln's 1863 Emancipation Proclamation to free slaves, hundreds of thousands of black Americans were re-enslaved as convict laborers.

Author Douglas Blackmon said on Tuesday the story was "absolutely essential" to understanding why a U.S. racial divide still exists and why the country's black minority lags behind the rest of the population in terms of economic and social health.

The convicts were arrested under laws such as vagrancy designed to ensnare them. They were then leased back to pay off their debts by working in coal mines, steel mills and other industries that flourished across the South.

Many were kept in chains and the book cites examples of a resurgence of some of the hallmarks of slavery: convicts kept in atrocious conditions, beatings, the use of dogs to track down escapees and murders by 'owners' that went unpunished.

Most of the people caught in the system were black men, though a few were white or black women.

Segregation, share-cropping and lynching are relatively well-known features of life in the U.S. south after the civil war, but Blackmon said "neo-slavery" is largely neglected.

Even so, it exerted a powerful influence, terrorizing a swathe of the population and suppressing opposition to other forms of racial oppression.   Continued...