Film & Theme
The Strategy of Nonviolence: Slavery by Another Name
Passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 devastated the South’s agriculture-based economy, which depended on large numbers of unpaid laborers. After Reconstruction, state governments developed a plan for alleviating the labor shortage through an exploitative and highly profitable prisoner leasing system. Southern sheriffs, judges, and politicians worked together to systematically arrest and convict thousands of men, women, and children for crimes such as petty theft, gambling, and vagrancy. The increasing numbers of convict laborers meant that lease holders had little incentive to care for the health and safety of workers. Sentences were long and working conditions were deplorable. By 1890, African Americans made up ninety percent of the Southern prison population. There were few strategies for resisting a system so deeply entrenched in the political and economic structures of the South. The labor of these convicts rebuilt the agricultural economy but also helped to develop new mining, timber, and brick industries.
In this clip, you will see how the increase in black prisoners led many whites to believe there was a rise in black crime and cemented their belief in the relationship between criminality and race. For Southern African Americans, as historian Fitzhugh Brundage points out, this system also created disillusionment about the significance of Emancipation and cynicism about the possibility of true justice in America.
Slavery by Another Name. 24:00–32:00
Questions for class discussion
- Why do historians claim that the convict leasing system was “worse than slavery”? In what ways was it a more exploitative system?
- What are the factors that made resistance to the convict labor system nearly impossible?
- How did convict leasing contribute to the creation of a new “industrial” South?
- How did the convict leasing system change white southern attitudes about former slaves? How did the system shape African American’s understanding of Emancipation?
Background Essays for the Teacher
- Frederick Douglass, letter on Jim Crow and Education
- Booker T. Washington, speech to the Hamilton Club
- Negro Business League of Virginia protests election disqualifications