Justice is the key issue for the documentary film, Slavery by Another Name, which opened the public program at the Indiana State Museum on Jan. 29.
150 years ago is still happening when it comes down to grasping equal opportunities for economic, social, cultural, and criminal justice nationally and right here in Indianapolis.
Jubilation surrounded the release from slavery. “Freedom must have felt glorious to those who had never known it,” comments a voice-over. Deeply committed to renewing wedding vows and reconstituting core family structures, Blacks also wanted their own churches, their own schools and social and cultural organizations. Above all else they wanted equal access to the American Dream. For some, having a plot of land to raise food, a welcoming home, and a safe environment in which to raise children was all they asked for. For some this was possible. For most it was not.
The New South could not proceed without cheap Black labor that fueled the Old South slave economy. A new exploitive system was invented by an emergent white culture. In the wake of Andrew Johnson’s punitive policies of Reconstruction, local control in the hands of white Southerners set into motion myriad infringements that allowed imprisonment of Blacks, particularly able-bodied, skilled Blacks whose prison sentence included “convict leasing to private industry” to work in mines and factories, public works and farm fields.
Looksa white person in the eye? Jail sentence. Give the impression of being uppity? Jail sentence. Not able to prove you have a job? Jail sentence.
“It was extending slavery under a different name,” informs a voice on screen. At a minimal cost a business owner could contract with a State for x-number of jailed men to work hours specified by the business. No one was responsible for a jailed man’s wellbeing. Slaveholders at least had an economic reason to keep slaves in good health; no one cared about jailed people. The State collected the money from offender leasing, ostensibly to pay of the jailed person’s fine.
And there’s the rub. In actuality, most of the South’s white population had always lived in poverty. Blacks who were forced into various forms of state-sanctioned indentured labor were subverting poor Whites’ grasp for jobs in an emerging urban, industrialized environment. The depth of hatred can be measured by myriad acts of inhumanity. The term “strange fruit” and the KKK emerged as sacrosanct entities.
“We have no understanding of what went on” is a universal overview concluding the documentary, directed by Sam Pollard, produced by Catherine Allan and Douglas Blackmon and written by Sheila Curran Bernard, based on Blackmon’s 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning book.
Following the viewing of Slavery by Another Name Tim Reed, a Freetown Village actor, portrayed Rev. Samuel P. Strong, whose message of strength against obstacles and being law abiding in the face of unjust laws has its echoes in the Civil Rights Movement.
Alex Lichtenstein, IU associate professor of history, and Brian C. Reeder, director of Indianapolis’ offender re-entry program brought the conversation to the present, pointing to how the oppression of Blacks from 1863 to World War II reverberates to the present as a runaway incarceration culture.
“The criminal justice system astounds,” said Dr. Lichtenstein. “It is unsustainable. The cost at every step is horrendous. We have to find a way to keep people out of jail. We have to teach awareness of why people end up in jail and change the situation.”
Mr. Reeder spun off figures that underscored the current staggering jail population, and the consequences to re-entry into a valid economy after a sentence has been served. “People are not disposable. We can’t throw people away, we have to shift how we look at opportunities for a living wage,” which is at the core of everything else that eventually leads to more people ending up in a criminal justice system that perpetuates itself. Reeder points to Mayor Greg Ballard’s initiative to involve every Indianapolis resident in “Caring for our community.”
By stressing “everyone on every street counts,” the emphasis is on prevention and protection. At the top of the solution is expanding access to high-quality preschool, engaging re-entrants into Indianapolis’ workforce and working with organizations whose primary missions include developing wholesome civic attitudes and actions.