Conceived in slavery and dedicated to the proposition that black men are created unequal, the United States has attempted to come to terms with its longue durée of white supremacy only twice in its history. The first effort, made by black and white abolitionists in the period of nationalist expansion, and caught up in the conflict between slave and free labour modes of production, brought hereditary legal servitude to an end. Its national hero, Abraham Lincoln, announced at Gettysburg that a nation 'conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal' had experienced 'a new birth of freedom' in civil war. But with the defeat of Reconstruction a decade after Lincoln's assassination, the 14th Amendment that was supposed to guarantee former slave 'persons' equality before the law came instead to insulate corporations, designated 'artificial persons', from popular political control. Deprived of the right to vote throughout the former Confederacy, freedmen and women were forced to work in repressive systems of labour, on farms, in mines and in chain-gangs; subject to arbitrary arrest, imprisonment and debt peonage; terrorised, brutalised and murdered in the thousands of lynchings often advertised in advance as public entertainments; confined to Jim Crow schools, public accommodation, restaurants and hotels (where any were available at all); made involuntary participants in sterilisation and other medical experiments; and confronted with residential apartheid and job discrimination as they moved North. A falsification that held more universal sway among whites than did any Stalinist rewriting of history in the Soviet Union transformed black Americans in the post-bellum South from victims of re-subjugation into political and sexual predators.
LRB 10 May 2001 | PDF Download