A Nation Industrialized on the Backs of Others

This is the first in a series of posts remembering the assassination of Dr. King and the events that preceded and followed.

Slavery is not a part of our history. Since to be a part of our history would suggest that there are other aspects of our history that are separate from slavery. They are not. The wealth that built this country sits on a foundation of capital created by enslaved people. The roots of racism that permeate every aspect of life in America began when the first Yankee financed and shipped African slaves into the Caribbean. How our government operates and even how we elect Presidents are all derived from the institutions of slavery.

In 1836, six percent of the U.S. population was enslaved. These Africans (yet to be African Americans) generated or caused to be generated about $600 million, just less than half of the GNP. By 1850, the 3.2 million people enslaved in the US had a market value of $1.3 billion. This was 20 percent of the country’s national wealth and half of our GNP.

Many U.S. corporations today can trace their success to the slave trade and the cotton business. Lehman Bros started in Mobile and made substantial profits by lending to enslavers using cotton and slaves as collateral. Aetna Insurance acknowledges that it made handsome profits from selling policies to enslavers to pay them should their slaves die. Between 1831 and 1854, two predecessor banks of J. P. Morgan held 13,000 slaves as collateral for loans to enslavers. More than a one-third of New York Life’s first life insurance policies were written on slaves for their enslavers.

The list goes on and on, as did the steady flow of profits from southern plantations to northern banks and insurance companies, where that money was used to build railroads, textile mills, steel mills, and the rest of the backbone of the U.S. infrastructure. Slavery was economically the definitive race to the bottom; the only cost of labor was the cost to feed it — an investors dream come true.

The enslaved watched as their sons, daughters, and wives were sold to enslavers in the next community or the next state. Many states passed laws forbidding teaching slaves to read or write. For the better part of 200 years, the U.S. economy’s growth was fueled by slavery and the backs of African slaves.

As late as 1850, Congress enacted the Fugitive Slave Act requiring Northern states to return slaves to their owners. Slaves were prohibited from giving testimony in tribunals set up by the act to determine their own legal ownership. In addition, Section 7 of the act made it a crime to obstruct, hinder, or prevent a slave catcher from taking without a warrant any person whom they claimed was a slave.

After the Civil War, the institution of slavery was replaced by sharecropping and legal discrimination. The shackle was replaced by debt instruments, usury, and brute force. Poll taxes and the Klan made sure those who could vote didn’t vote. Housing practices made sure that the children of former slaves could not live next to whites. Our own current president and his father on multiple ocassions were found guilty of discriminatory housing practices when they refused to sell or rent to African-Americans regardless of their ability to pay.

The concentration of African-Americans into confined areas combined with a public education system funded by local revenues meant and means that education spending per pupil is still lower in African-American communities than in middle-class white communities.

Life expectancy for African-Americans remains below that of whites.

Oregon had a governor who was elected by the Klan. In the 1920s, Oregon had 35,000 Klan members in 60 local chapters, including several Women of the Klu Klux Klan auxiliaries. For the longest time the advice given when traveling through Oregon north to south was: “If you want to stay alive, stay on I-5.”

The original Oregon Constitution limited property ownership to whites, denied the right to vote to “Negro, Chinaman, or Mulatto.” While the Oregon Constitution did ban slavery it also banned free Negroes and Mulatto from owning property, being legal signatory to contracts, and living in the state.

Despite our famously short attention spans, we must not forget that Ronald Reagan announced his run for president in Philadelphia, Mississippi, at the time a cradle for white supremacists. Our current president is in the White House, not because the Electoral College was designed to protect rural areas from urban areas but because it was designed to protect slave states from free states.

The distance from mob lynching to police executions of people of color reminds us that we have yet a long road to travel. The election of an African-American President does not absolve us of our past nor symbolize that our legacy has been reconciled.

“We Reserve the Right to Refuse Service to Anyone” and “Whites Only” are signs more similar than different.

This is the America into which Dr. King and Malcom X were born and raised. It is an America where — for too many Americans — equal opportunity was and is still a dream.