Circular 3591 and Why Dec 12th Is Special in the Fight Against Slavery
When did slavery end in the United States of America?
Your answer might reflect a President Lincoln/Frederick Douglass orientation that pinpoints Jan. 01, 1863, the effective date of Lincoln’s Executive Order, otherwise referred to as the Emancipation Proclamation. This is a common idea and one that focuses on a key sentence in the document:
“…that all persons held as slaves within the rebellious states are and henceforward shall be free.”
However, the Emancipation Proclamation stipulated limits on its powers to end slavery. Lincoln’s order applied only to states that had seceded from the Union. Border states that did not secede were not affected. Further, the parts of the Confederacy where the Northern states had seized control were exempted. And the proclamation only assured emancipation in those states that secured Union victory in the Civil War. Given the confluence of limitations, contrary to popular belief, chattel slavery in America did not end in 1863.
You might suggest that slavery ended on June 18, 1865. On that date, Union General Gordon Granger led a contingent of 2,000 federal troops to take control of Galveston, Texas, freeing persons still living under slavery. However, while Granger freed the slaves in Galveston, the limits of the Emancipation Proclamation remained. Hence, the history celebrated as Juneteenth did not mark the end of America’s peculiar institution.
Now, you might answer, “On Dec. 18, 1865 when Secretary of State announced that it has been ratified by Union states and a required minimum number of border and Southern states.” This is a plausible answer in that the Thirteenth Amendment was designed to prohibit slavery and involuntary servitude, with the exception of punishment for crimes. However, the Thirteenth Amendment, for all its good, did not end slavery. It is interesting to note that Kentucky ratified the Thirteenth Amendment in 1976 and Mississippi just noticed the Office of the Federal Register in February 2013 that it ratified the amendment in 1995. Aside from this, the Thirteenth Amendment, while outlawing slavery, failed to codified owning a slave as a crime.
Slavery Reconstituted for the 20th Century
Journalist and author Douglas Blackmon’s book, Slavery by Another Name, has opened a tidal wave of discussions on America’s involvement in the slave trade that completely re-frames the nature, evolution, and timetable traditionally associated with the darkest period in American history and, in some accounts, in the history of mankind. Blackmon argues that illegal slavery in America, that is slavery not associated with crime, morphed and persisted until two pivotal events in 1941 and 1942.
Slavery by Another Name notes that the failure of the Thirteenth Amendment to codify holding persons for slavery/involuntary servitude as a crime enabled a reconstituting of slavery through the criminalization of black behavior such as walking along a railroad track and through trapping blacks in indefinite debt obligations (peonage) where interest rates routinely exceeded 50, 70, and 90 percent.
According to Blackmon, these practices resulted in tens of thousands of blacks locked into forced labor agreement. And given their lucrative nature, Southern states joined in by selling blacks to private corporations. As it turns out, reconstituted slavery was the central vehicle for which the south, devastated by war, would rebuild. And where cities such as Birmingham, AL would take its place in America’s 20th century industrialization.
A Most Unexpected Turn of Events
As a Christian, God has shown me time and time again that He does work in ways mysterious to mankind. This cannot adequately describe the mystery behind two seemingly unrelated events that would have enormous implications. On Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, thrusting the U.S. into World War II. In Europe, Adolph Hitler was into his seventh year as President of Germany and the Holocaust had been quietly taking place without U.S. intervention since 1933. On Dec. 11th, Hitler declared war against the U.S. independent of action taken by Japan. By this time, blacks in the South were still living under treacherous conditions of reconstituted slavery with no foreseeable means to end the practice.
The bombing of Pearl Harbor forced President Franklin D. Roosevelt to address the horrendous circumstances of blacks in the South as this would be an international embarrassment in a propaganda campaign launched by Japan. The federal government had been unsuccessful for years in prosecuting forced labor cases that routinely lacked proof of an outstanding debt. President Roosevelt’s Attorney General crafted a key document that would focus on the issue of slavery, and not peonage, to go after violators.
That document, Circular 3591 dated Dec. 12, 1942, enable authorities across the country to finally break the backs of involuntary servitude. Biddle led the Civil Rights section of the Department of Justice [DOJ] to use constitution amendments and various Reconstruction laws to prosecute individuals suspected of holding people under forced labor conditions. Whereas previous prosecutions failed due to lack of evidence of debt in peonage cases, the new direction would concentrate on violations of forcible bondage:
“It is the purpose of these instructions to direct the attention of the United State Attorneys to the possibilities of successful prosecutions stemming from alleged peonage complaints which have heretofore been considered inadequate to invoke federal jurisdiction. It is requested that the spelling out of peonage under Section 444 be deferred in favor of building the cases around the issue of involuntary servitude and slaver under Sections 443, 51, and 52, disregarding entirely the element of debt…”
According to Blackmon, a Texas man was prosecuted in 1942 for having held another man for 15 years as an involuntary servant. The offender was sent to prison. In a 1947 DOJ case, Elizabether Ingalls was found guilty of enslaving Dora L. Jones. The Court concluded that Jones:
“was a person wholly subject to the will of defendant; that she was one who had no freedom of action and whose person and services were wholly under the control of defendant and who was in a state of enforced compulsory service to the defendant.”
After oscillating between frustration and indifference, Circular 3591 provided the necessary legal framework to effectively close the loopholes on slavery in this country. As such December 12, 1941, while not typically acknowledged among more prominent events, is a date that changed the lives of African Americans and Americans, in-general.
The history of slavery’s end in America has a number of profound implications. To ignore these also ignores the possible lessons that we can learn as an evolving society. Consider:
1) Absent Pearl Harbor, a nation reticent about both the war in Europe and Africa as well as cracking down on evolving forms of slavery might have continued in slavery for years and decades to come.
2) The end of slavery in the 1940s means the possibility of elderly persons being alive today who lived through the last vestiges of America’s shameful enterprise.
3) Americans must shift the timetable some 80 years to get a full glimpse of slavery in America. And this is complicated by the overlapping realities of jim crow segregation. For instance, one might argue that jim crow segregation not only reinforced a race-based caste system but also fed the forced labor economy.
4) The extension of slavery into the first half of the 20th century sheds new light on the efficacy of and premature dismantling of civil rights legislation and programs. Rollbacks that began with the presidency of Ronald Reagan effected measures that were less than 25-to-30 years old. Only 40 years after the end of forced labor systems that lasted nearly 225 years in the America.
5) The reconstitution of slavery that became immersed in public policy has particular interest for criminal justice. One looming lesson in our nation’s 1865 to 1941 history is that white supremacists in various areas and levels of society have responded in different ways to subjugate people of African descent. With the rise in incarceration rates, dating back to the Clinton Administration, prison-related commerce, and prison privatization, one cannot dismiss today’s public policy as to what extent the motivations are similar to those that entrapped African Americans for nearly 80 years after the Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Here, Michelle Alexander’s, The New Jim Crow, is an excellent resource to join with Blackmon’s work to overlay the dimensions of today’s criminal justice system with elements of reconstituted slavery.
Circular 3591 does not receive the attention it deserves in the ongoing fight for justice in America. Its contextual origins are largely political. However, for a people who prayed for God to deliver, the unanticipated events of the Pearl Harbor, as unfortunate as they are, have some redemptive value relative to the plight of African Americans.
Further, Blackmon’s work provides a foundation from which we can better examine the pathology of myriad social political, and economic issues facing our nation. Likewise, responsible public policy requires a composite study of slavery and neo-slavery systems that shaped the lives of millions of African Americans. However we respond to this new perspective on our nation’s most egregious societal legacy, the worst that we can do is to ignore what Douglas Blackmon has presented.
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