Columns » John Brummett

Pulitzer winner reveals nation’s debt

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Douglas Blackmon grew up in the 1960s and 1970s in a small Mississippi town along the big river's delta. His parents kept him in public school when integration came, putting him in a 20 percent white minority while most white kids fled to the private “academy.”

As a schoolboy he read his essay on the area's racist past to a local civic club. He found out afterward that the club contained Ku Klux Klan members who had first-hand knowledge of some of the events he had described. Blackmon spent his high school years in Monticello where his family moved so his dad could head the local college's forestry department.

He went to Hendrix College, where he edited the student newspaper. Then he worked as a reporter for the old Arkansas Democrat, then as editor of the Daily Record, the legal newspaper in Little Rock.

He made it to The Wall Street Journal's bureau in Atlanta. There he produced intriguing articles about how early wealth in corporate industrial America often sprang from the abuse of black people in a system of human bondage extending well beyond slavery's formal abolition. Blackmon spent eight years developing that subject into a book, “Slavery by Another Name.”

This year the book won no less than the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction. It is hailed for its importance — for its uncomfortable revelation of a nation that essentially continued to enslave black people even until World War II. Slavery was unconstitutional, of course, but it was not specifically prohibited by any statute, thus punishable if violated. The nation reformed itself in 1941 not from shame, but duress. Franklin Roosevelt feared that Japanese propaganda might turn American black people against their country.

Now 45, and with his proud mom front and center, Blackmon delivered a lecture Friday evening at the gloriously rebuilt Mosaic Templars Culture Center on 9th Street in Little Rock. His homecoming was presented in part by LifeQuest, a Little Rock organization that provides continuing activities and “adventures in learning” for retired persons.

Blackmon wrote and told of Southern states that had laws saying a family couldn't stop tenant farming for one landowner and seek a better deal with another unless the first landowner gave approval. He wrote and told of Southern states that had broad laws against “vagrancy,” which meant the authorities could jail a black man for walking along the street merely because he, as a simple laborer for cash, couldn't produce a pay stub proving gainful employment.

The black man could get out of jail only for payment of a fine he couldn't afford. But the local brick plant, for example, could afford it. In exchange for bail, the plant put the black man to work to pay off the loan. These were shackles, nothing less.

“This book made me mad,” said Kathryn Fitzhugh, librarian at the University of Arkansas Bowen Law School in Little Rock, said afterward during a panel discussion.

Former U.S. Sen. David Pryor, seated near me, was audibly moved by some of what he heard. He hustled afterward to get a copy of the book.

To read “Slavery by Another Name” and ponder its lingering damage is to understand better why affirmative action had its place. It is to understand better the pervasive distrust among African-Americans for law enforcement.

Ancestry, cultural heritage — none of us, including today's African-Americans, can altogether escape ours. Yes, the issue of reparations arose. Blackmon punted it, but Pulaski Circuit Judge Wiley Branton Jr., son of the late great civil rights lawyer, tackled it as a panelist.

For the government to hand out money to all black people today for yesterday's inhumanity would be impractical and perhaps foolhardy, Branton said. But there ought to be some way, he argued, to direct money generally and institutionally to offer targeted help to today's African-Americans to try to mitigate, in a general way, their inherited disadvantages.

Special help for those who are black — in their woeful inner cities, in the colleges predominantly of their color, in their persistent absence of opportunity — continues to be a national moral imperative.

Don't think so? Scoff? Don't we now have an African-American president? Doesn't that make everything well?

Read the book.

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