Leniency and the New Black Codes

Historical Shackles

Historical shackles still felt today

In April of 1965 during a speech he was giving in Louisiana, President Lincoln outlined a portion of his plans for Reconstruction; to give certain blacks-freedmen and those who’d served honorably in the war-the right to vote.  Three days later, he was assassinated.  Quite possibly, America’s recovery died on that same day.

Succeeding Lincoln, President Andrew Johnson determined that southern states’ should retain their Confederate right to police themselves in the civil war’s aftermath.  In shades of current times, he felt they alone should make the call about federally-mandated issues such as voting.  The result of his leniency, and the southern states’ audacity, was the amendment of Lincoln’s original plans.  The most notorious of these changes was the creation of the Black Codes.

A 1943 Colored Waiting Room sign from Rome Georgia.

A 1943 Colored Waiting Room sign from Rome Georgia.

Simply put, the codes were a chain of laws enacted to maintain control of the newly freed black population.  They cited what you could do; what you couldn’t; when you could do it; where you worked; who you worked for; how much you got paid; if you got paid.

The American Black Codes were insidious because they show that as early as 1865, it was determined that the way to maintain control of the black population was through employment, the dollar and debt.  Fast-forward to today; Hello, Ferguson.

Are some trying to reclaim a past that we’re really not that far from?  Or, has the past never truly faded away?  Consider that the migration of five million black Americans from the South to the North began in 1940 when cotton picking became mechanized and ended in 1970, you get an idea of the proximity we share with a troubling time in the country’s history.

Forty-five years is all that separates us from the end of an era; an era that saw the subjugation of one race of people for the monetary gain of another, followed by the abolition of the original only to be replaced by new policies, much more subtle yet no less dehumanizing.

Just as the Confederate south sought to create an agrarian utopia off the sweat and toil of Africans centuries ago, today the city of Ferguson looks to fill its civic coffers off the sweat and equity of its African-American citizens.  So now what; where do we go from here?

It could be argued that then President Johnson’s leniency towards southern states, however well meaning, did little to put the Union on a path to recovery.  Rather, it seems that his lax enforcement allowed a beaten South to refurbish and subsequently institutionalize many of its forbidden policies.  And as these retooled best practices became known to the rest of the country, many recoiled while others took notes.

That’s what you see today in Ferguson, Missouri; a retooled version of the South’s 1865 Black Codes.  And aside from AG Eric Holder, there doesn’t appear to be a lot of outrage about it.  Not that there was any expected; I mean, the police routinely and mistakenly kill citizens all the time, with little legal recourse on behalf of the citizen, and the country hasn’t shown any taste for engaging in or seeking any type of enforcement reform.

Leniency is what got us into this and it’s the same indulgence that keeps us where we are.  I think it’s ingrained in the codes, the new and the old; that they force the decent to look away in both horror and contempt. However, hope lies in our ability to recognize one vital thing.

An example of the black codes from 1742

An example of the black codes from 1742


The important thing to retain about Black Codes is that they exist everywhere because everywhere you’ll find some men willing to berate and mistreat others for some reason or another, unfortunately.  Such behavior exists throughout history and is not necessarily bound by nationality, religion, race, or time.

As the codes originally used to subjugate blacks spreads their revamped institutionalized stigma to other facets of society, i.e. housing and education, many people other than blacks, will find themselves caught up in the same web of enslavement.  It’s like I said, some were taking notes and have been for a while.

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