By Norris Burkes July 26, 2020
Thirty years ago, I was having some discord in my first pastorate when, worried about job security, I called my dad, a retired pastor.
“Dad, were you ever fired from a church?” I asked.
“Yes, in Louisiana,” he said. “I brought a black man to church and the deacons fired me by nightfall.”
I thought for a second about the disagreeable church leaders I was currently clashing with when I asked my dad, “Did those deacons have kids?”
My question was a nod to the 24 Bible verses that speak of the generational consequences of sin, “…visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons to the third and fourth generation” (Numbers 14:18).
We both knew that if the racists who’d fired my dad were as influential on their children as my dad was on me, then my generation was in trouble.
The same sin of racism that had seeped from slavery into my father’s generation continues to infect us today.
But instead of facing our sin, we attempt to dismiss it by asking such questions as — “What’s wrong with these protesters? The 13th Amendment abolished slavery 155 years ago and freed nearly 4 million slaves.”
I want to ask them, “Have you read the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution?”
Since this is the last of my four columns written for July Freedom Month, let’s read the amendment together, shall we?
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
It’s that bold print that gave Douglas A. Blackmon direction for his Pulitzer-winning book, “Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II” (Doubleday 2009).
That bold print means the 13th Amendment doesn’t apply to those convicted of crime. In 1865, all that was needed to re-enslave the free was to change the Southern judicial system.
One such example, says Blackmon, was the exaggerated laws called Pig Laws. The statutes elevated the misdemeanor theft of a pig to a felony. Even stealing an 8-cent fence post brought a felony conviction.
Many states had loitering laws which allowed blacks to be arrested for not working or simply having Sunday off. Blackmon noted that people were arrested even for being “uppity” or “mouthy.”
Once convicted, inmates were leased to industry where they were literally worked to death in coal mines and agricultural fields. In some places, Blackmon maintains that leased convicts died at 30-40 percent a year.
Blacks convicted of softer crimes had their fines paid by local employers who detained them to work until the debt was paid. The arrangement was called “peonism,” outlawed after the Civil War but practiced until the early 1940s.
Black sharecroppers also were detained on their own farms and charged interest rates of 50-90% for the land. Blackmon says that if they tried to default by leaving, they were subject to arrest.
By the time we get to my father’s church in the early 1950s, our generational sin is unfathomable.
The sins of our fathers found more seed in the racial unrest of the 1960s and with the “Law and Order” 80s and 70s that saw mass arrests of blacks in disproportionate numbers. (Today, approximately 1/3 of our incarcerated population are black.)
The 1990s began the age of the camera. The beating and killing of black men by authorities came to be “America’s Foulest Videos.”
Today, because of the sins of our fathers, we are the living evidence of the history that our parents chose for us. However, African Americans are a product of the choices they were denied.
Vietnam veterans have told me that their healing could begin when they hear the words, “Welcome home.”
Is it too much to believe that African Americans can heal when they see proof that their lives matter? Because for much too long, history shows that their lives simply haven’t.
- 1. Blackmon, Douglas A. 2009 “Slavery by Another Name.”
- 2. PBS special, 2012 “Slavery by Another Name.”
- 3. Netflix, 2016 “13th”
- 4. YouTube 2020 “Holy Post – Race in America.” VeggieTales creator Phil Viche/