Last year, when Gov. Rick Scott and his cabinet enacted an archaic ban on the voting rights of ex-felons, supporters called the ban colorblind. They said making nonviolent felons wait five years after completing their sentences to apply for the right to vote again had nothing to do with Florida's ugly history of suppressing African-American voters.
Well, a PBS documentary that aired last night begs to differ. Slavery by Another Name documents with chilling precision the South's history of arresting African-Americans for petty crimes such as vagrancy and then forcing them, without a trial, into years of hard labor. Such convict-leasing programs lasted 80 years after the Civil War, until the 1940s.
In Florida, African-Americans were forced to work in turpentine camps, on railroads, and in lumber yards. In the 1880s, it was illegal for an African-American man to change
employers without permission. White bosses would say their "employees"
owed them money, then make them work off the debt indefinitely. This
system, called debt peonage, worked hand in hand with convict leasing
to keep African-Americans enslaved. Interestingly, it wasn't until a
white man, arrested for vagrancy, was whipped to death in a Florida
lumber camp that the state finally outlawed convict leasing.
Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Douglas Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name calls into question long-held assumptions about when slavery actually ended in this country. It also illustrates how seemingly colorblind laws, such as Florida's 1868 felon voting ban, were used to restrict the freedom of African-Americans.
Since African-Americans at the time were being arrested by the thousands, sent to work camps, and labeled felons for alleged crimes such as bigamy, the felon ban was very effective in keeping them from voting.
"It was used to target and weaken voting rights for blacks," Lance deHaven-Smith, professor of public administration at Florida State University, told New Times last year. "And that is what they're doing with it today."