Coerced Labor: Georgia Poised to Repeat It’s Deplorable History

“Gov. Nathan Deal on Tuesday offered what he called a “partial solution” to Georgia’s farm labor shortage: put people on criminal probation to work picking fruits and vegetables in South Georgia…Deal outlined his proposal the same day his office released the results of a state survey of farmers showing they have 11,080 jobs open, which is about 14 percent of the full-time positions that are filled annually…The labor shortage is potentially putting hundreds of millions of dollars in crops at risk, say state agricultural industry leaders.” – AJC, June 14.
Let’s, for the moment, set aside the issue of whether our State leaders actually gave any serious thought to what they might accomplish with House Bill 87 this last session of the legislature.
Instead let’s go back to a time reported by Douglas Blackmon in his book, Slavery by Another Name – “After a plea for more cotton pickers in August 1932, police in Macon, Georgia, scoured the town’s streets, arresting sixty black men on ‘vagrancy’ charges and immediately turning them over to a plantation owner named J. H. Stroud.” Blackmon documents in painful detail the corruption of the legal system in the South to supply mine workers in Alabama, field hands in South Georgia and, yes, industrial workers in what is now the City of Atlanta. Blackmon’s book was on the reading list for a Beltline Seminar at Spelman College where he was a guest lecturer.
I recently read Blackmon’s account of the post-Civil War system – a system based in corrupt state laws and willful federal ignorance of the re-enslavement of (mostly) black men throughout the Deep South. While I had been vaguely aware of the system, his retelling of the events was nothing less than shocking – that such a system could have persisted until just before the Second World War. At least, however, I had the comfort of knowing that I was reading history – tragic, indeed – but history, nonetheless.

And now – an echo of earlier times appears. Ill-conceived public policy – an agricultural crisis – the discovery of labor shortage – and a simple solution through the criminal justice system. There is certainly a sound argument for humane reform of our immigration system. There is also an argument to be made for ensuring needed jobs go first to those citizens who are much in need of work and income. However, the suggestion of sending probationers into the fields to solve our self-inflicted economic wound is nothing more than retrogressing to an earlier shameful time in our State’s history of victimizing hundreds of mostly black men and condemning them to near slavery, while the rest of us watch silently. Now as then many of the potential victims have poor if any legal representation and few employment opportunities.
It is time to step back. Not to step back in time – but to step back to some truly useful public policy in immigration reform and in jobs development and not pervert our criminal justice system yet again.

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