THE REPENTANCE PROJECT / AN AMERICAN LENT
and Convict Leasing
and Convict Leasing
WEEK V / DAY IV
Thursday, March 15, 2018
Scripture / Read Proverbs 20:23, Micah 6:11, Leviticus 19:36
The LORD detests differing weights, and dishonest scales do not please him. — Proverbs 20:23
Shall I acquit someone with dishonest scales, with a bag of false weights? — Micah 6:11
Use honest scales and honest weights, an honest ephah and an honest hin. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt. — Leviticus 19:36
Our History and Its Legacy
After the Civil War, Southern states adopted “Black Codes,” including vagrancy laws aimed at controlling unemployed African-Americans. If arrested for vagrancy and unable to pay the fine, one was sent to work the fields to pay his debt. Given that both state government and private business stood to benefit from the practice of convict leasing, vagrancy arrests (primarily of African-Americans) escalated during harvest season. In 1898 roughly 73% of Alabama’s state revenue came from convict leasing. Meanwhile Northern states would contract for prison labor.
Delta Bluesman David “Honeyboy” Edwards recalls the effects of vagrancy laws in Mississippi during the 1940s: “In the South they had that vagrancy law … I got pulled over for that a number of times. That means better have a job or don’t be seen on the streets. The police pick you up in the streets during the day when everybody’s working. ‘What you doing walkin’ around here? Get in the car.’ They carry you into jail and give you four to five days, and that time was spent out in the fields working the cotton” (The World Don’t Owe Me Nothing by David “Honeyboy" Edwards, 1997:47).
Unlike most US laws, vagrancy laws did not require that a person do something criminal before they were arrested. Equipped with this license to arrest at will for roughly 90 years, local and state governments handpicked an unlimited source of free labor to work Southern fields, just as we had done before the Emancipation and the Thirteenth Amendment. Vagrancy laws were declared unconstitutional during the 1960s and 1970s. Various forms of US convict labor still continue today.
Reflection and Response / Prayer of Repentance
"Heavenly Father, You are Holy and Just. You love honesty and fairness and respect Your image embedded in all people. Yet, my culture and economy (including me) has benefitted at the expense of the poor and marginalized — both historically and presently. I don’t know what to do with this except to ask for your mercy and that Your Kingdom come. May Your will be done, Your ways established, Your honesty and generosity and freedom openly exchanged among us — here in my hometown, in our state, and in our nation. Have mercy on me. Have mercy on us."
Written by Ted Haddock