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Wall Street Bureau Chief discusses inauguration, role of race in America

<uglas Blackmon has been thinking about race for a long time. His first grade class was the first in Leland, Miss. to be integrated, and already then he was questioning why his family lived so much differently than those of the African Americans at his school. By the seventh grade, the local Lions Club had stopped hosting its annual oratorical competition because of a speech Blackmon gave on the town’s race riots. Now the bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal in Atlanta and author of the book “Slavery By Another Name,” Blackmon brought his history of racial musings to Carleton for Friday’s convocation entitled, “A Persistent Past: Reckoning With our Troubled Racial History in the Age of Obama.”

Presenting just three days after covering the historic Presidential Inauguration for the Journal, Blackmon described the occasion as “an event Dr. King would have agreed was the mountaintop he had preached about the night before he was killed.”

Now, according to Blackmon, it is simply a matter of convincing ordinary Americans that in reaching this mountaintop, something about American culture has in fact changed. In this regard, “the journey down is as hard as the journey up,” Blackmon said.

The journey up has been of vast importance for Blackmon throughout his life and his journalism career. As a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in the earlier years of his career, he exposed the riots and violence toward protesting students—including the shooting of a 16-year-old boy—that occurred in Leland during a strike by African American farm workers. His story prompted the town’s mayor to publish an editorial denying any recollection of said riots. Blackmon can give a long list of examples like this one of people refusing to confront the darkness of the past and thus preventing society from ever “fully understand[ing] ourselves as Americans.”

In “Slavery by Another Name,” he brings a deeply hidden part of the country’s racial past—a practice he refers to as “neo-slavery”—to light. Though slavery supposedly ended with the culmination of the Civil War, Blackmon describes the involuntary servitude of hundreds of thousands of African Americans on farms and in mines throughout the South until the 1940s. Men imprisoned under laws made to intimidate blacks were sold to labor-seekers across the United States, including the U.S. Steel Corp., and made to work grueling hours. Because Congress had never directly passed a law banning slavery, there was no statute under which to criminally charge a person with holding slaves. “Slavery became unconstitutional with the passage of the 13th Amendment, but strangely enough, it didn’t become illegal,” Blackmon said.

Filed away in the National Archives are 30,000 pages of reports and letters regarding the continued practice of slavery that were never investigated due to the touchy nature of race relations after the end of the Reconstruction Era. Actual laws outlawing the possession of slaves were not passed until World War Two, when President Franklin Roosevelt and the Attorney General set out to mend any race-based policies that could be held against the country by Axis forces.

In remaining unaware of the full journey of racial relations leading to Obama’s “mountaintop” election, Blackmon fears society is still unable to realize the progress already made and progress still to come. He concerns himself with the parts of the past that Americans cannot find in their history textbooks because “these events explain more about our current state of black and white than the antebellum events that preceded them,” he said.

This state of black and white, according to Blackmon, is changing now more than ever. As Barack Obama declared his presidential candidacy across the street from the site of the lynching of two black men one hundred years before, Blackmon said people could feel one of “those good kinds of irony.”

Now, as Obama settles in to his first few weeks as President of the United States, Blackmon bids us take notice of both the fantastic achievements and the incredible struggles the nation is experiencing. “If there’s something out there from the heavens that gives blessings, then count the fact that you get to be alive at this time in history,” he said.

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