Jim Crow Guide: The Way it Was
by Stetson Kennedy 1959
Chapter IX - Who Are Subject to Forced Labor
A Dark skin is just enough to derpive you of a job - and then get you punished for being jobless.
Although there is nothing whatever in the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing the right to work, all of the 48 states have so-called vagrancy laws making it a criminal offence to be without work. This, in spite of the fact that there is what the business community politely refers to as a "normal float" of from three to five million unemployed -a job shortage that increases periodically to as much as fifteen, million.
In practice, however, this seeming anomaly does not work a double hardship on the great majority of fair-skinned Americans, inasmuch as the vagrancy laws are enforced mainly against dark skinned Americans -Negroes, Mexican Americans American Indians, gypsies, and 1 others.
Part-time employment is not always regarded as a good excuse-in some places you can be convicted of vagrancy unless you work more than half of the time.
Of course if YOU can establish the fact that you have funds you may loaf all you wish, as the vagrancy laws specifically exempt persons of means.
In short, it is against the law to be unemployed and broke if you are able-bodied and without means of support.
True, when the states of California and Florida during the depression of the 1930s dosed their borders to indigents, the Supreme Court overruled them, saying: "The mere state of being without funds is a Constitutional irrelevancy." This judicial observation has not been brought to bear on vagrancy laws, however, which have indeed been held Constitutional.
On their face, the laws of course say nothing about race. Moreover, one must be on the lookout for police action undertaken without regard to any law. In a great many places in the U.S.A. - especially expensive resort and residential areas-the police operate what is popularly known as the "Hobo Express". Should you find yourself broke and unemployed in such a place, and look it, you may be picked up by the police and given a free ride to the city limits or county line, where you will be deposited and warned not to return.
Negroes have composed a folksong about the omnipresent prospect of being charged with vagrancy, which goes like this:
Standin' on the comer,
Waitin' for my brown;
First thing I knowed
I was jail-house bound.
I asked Mr. Police
"Won't you turn me loose?"
I said, "I got no money,
But a good excuse."
And then I heard
judge Pickett say,
Or take him away!"
Wish that mean old
judge was dead,
And green grass growin'
All over his head!
Pursuits not Recognized
The crime of vagrancy is regarded as a continuing one, which you can be sent to jail over and over again on the same charge, just as long as you remain broke and unemployed.
At the same time, the vagrancy laws list a variety of occupations and avocations as being as bad or worse than unemployment.
Of course, if you are a person of wealth you may engage in any or all of these pursuits, and be as idle as you wish, without fear of prosecution for vagrancy.
In most states the penalty for persons convicted of vagrancy is a fine ranging from 50 to 100 dollars, and/or a 30-day sentence, usually on a public work gang. In Arkansas the law specifies that vagrancy fines shall be worked out at the archaic rate of a dollar a day.
Throughout the South, vagrancy laws have taken the place of the Black Codes enlarged by the white planters shortly after the Civil War with a view to keeping Negroes in a state of semi-slavery.
These Black Codes imposed an annual head-tax, which the white planters frequently paid for delinquent Negroes, who were then required to work it out.
Special laws rigidly bound Negro apprentices to their white "employers", and still other laws made the slightest deviation from a labor contract-on the part of a Negro laborer share-cropper, or tenant farmer-prima facie evidence of fraud.
Federal anti-peonage laws enacted in 1875 to free the Indians of New Mexico from peonage had the added effect of nullifying much of the Black Codes.
Twenty Varieties of Vagrants
It was then that many Southern states resorted to vagrancy laws, which they copied almost verbatim from New England states.
Unless you happen to be a very poor white sharecropper or migratory farm-worker, you may well rejoice that most (not all) white Americans have been emancipated from involuntary servitude. it was not always thus. The historian J. B. McMaster has written of the white European emigres who became indentured servants to pay for their passage to America: "They became in the eyes of the law a slave and in both the civil and criminal code were classed with the Negro slave and the Indian ... and might be flogged as often as the master or mistress thought necessary." Contemporary observers of that period opined that slavery was the natural condition of "proletarian whites from Germany and Ireland". Nor were native-born whites entirely exempt. A writer Of 1793 recorded how some white parents in Pennsylvania were obliged to "sell and trade away their children like so many head of cattle".
Nowadays, the vagrancy laws remain as a heritage from that bygone era.
The Florida law is typically comprehensive, listing the following varieties of vagrants (quote):
1. Rogues and vagabonds. 2. Idle or dissolute persons who go about begging. 3. Common gamblers. 4. Persons who use juggling, or unlawful games or plays. 5. Common pipers and fiddlers. 6. Common drunkards. 7. Common night-walkers. 8. Thieves. 9. Pilferers. 10. Traders in stolen property. 11. Lewd, wanton, and lascivious persons. 12. Keepers of gambling places. 13. Common railers and brawlers. 14. Persons who neglect their calling or employment, or are without reasonably continuous employment or regular income and who have not sufficient property to sustain them and misspend what they earn without providing for themselves or the support of their families. 15. Persons wandering or strolling about from place to place without any lawful purpose or object. 16. Habitual loafers. 17. idle and disorderly persons. 18. Persons neglecting all lawful business and habitually spending their time by frequenting houses of ill fame, gaming houses, or tippling shops. 19. Persons able to work but habitually living upon the earnings of their wives or minor children. 20. All able-bodied, male persons over the age of 18 years who are without means of support and remain in idleness.
If you fall into one or more of the above categories-and particularly if in addition you are nonwhite-you might be charged with vagrancy almost anywhere in the U.S.A. as the laws of the various states are very similar.
In a few states, however, there are variations worthy of note.
In South Carolina, the following categories are added to the more common forms of vagrancy:
1. All suspicious persons going about the country, swapping and bartering horses (without producing a certificate of his or their good character signed by a magistrate of the county from which said person last came). 2. All persons who, occupying or being in possession of some piece of land, shall not cultivate such a quantity thereof as shall be deemed by the magistrate to be necessary for the maintenance of himself and his family. 3. All persons representing publicly for gain or reward, without being fully licensed, any play, comedy, tragedy, interlude or farce, or other entertainment of the stage, or any part thereof. 4. All sturdy beggars.
In Virginia, the vagrancy law is also aimed at: 1. All persons who shall unlawfully return into any county or corporation whence they have been legally removed. 2. All persons who shall come from any place without this
Commonwealth to any place within it and shall be found loitering and residing therein, and shall follow no labor, trade, occupation, or business, and have no visible means of subsistence, and can give no reasonable account of themselves or their business in such place.
Are you sure you can give a reasonable account of yourself?
"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", says the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Sounds good, but look out!
"Peonage or debt slavery has by no means disappeared from our land' , the Georgia Baptist Convention warned more than half a century later. "There are more white people involved in this diabolical practice than there were slaveholders. There are more Negroes held Id by these debt-slavers than were actually owned as slaves before the war between the states. The method is the only thing that has changed."
The modern method consists on the one hand of the companyowned comissary-a common feature of the turpentine and lumber camps of the South and the cotton plantations of the South and Southwest. In these establishments, commonly referred to as "robbersaries" , the "employees" are obliged to obtain their food and other basic necessities of life at exorbitant prices which keep them perpetually in debt and preclude their receiving cash wages for their work. At the same time, this private enterprise system has the support of lawenforcement agencies, who bring to bear the vagrancy and so-called fraud laws, so that the only escape for the debt slave is into a prison camp or convict work gang.
True, the Thirteenth Amendment and the Federal anti-peonage law have been in exictence more than three-quarters of a century. Also true, the Supreme Court has ruled &at "the state must respect the Constitutional and statutory command that it may not make a failure to labor in discharge of a debt any part of a crime. It may not directly or indirectly command involuntary servitude, even if it was voluntarily contracted for."
But, like many another basic law and court ruling, these have been rendered virtual dead letters through the reluctance of U.S. law enforcement agencies to institute criminal prosecutions under them. Only once or twice in each decade, when some spectacular case finds its way into the public eye, does the justice Department stir itself in this field. Even then the effect is limited to the individual case concerned, leaving the system itself unaffected.
In 1951 the United Nations established an Ad Hoc Committee on Forced Labor, consisting of three members. Such a Committee was proposed by America, the U.N. rejecting a Soviet counter-proposal for a broad committee representative of the organized labor move-' meat of the world. The three-man Committee proceeded to hold hearings, taking volumes of testimony relative to conditions in communist countries.
In reply to a Committee questionnaire, the U.S. State Department declared: "The United States Constitution and laws contain effective safeguards against the existence of such forced labor. The United, States, therefore, has no penal or administrative laws, regulations, or administrative rules or practices pertinent to the Committee's inquiries."
The Committee accepted this assertion at face value, together with, similar representations received from certain other countries having colonial possessions in Africa, Asia, and South America. A hearing was held, however, in New York for the announced purpose of taking testimony relative to conditions in the Western Hemisphere. When it was further announced that the hearing was about to be adjourned for lack of any evidence, the author of this present work felt moved to send the Committee an offer of evidence. The offer was publicly made, and accepted.
Although the author bad lived all his life in a region where forced labor camps abound, he set out with a magnetoband recorder to penetrate the camps and bring out fresh evidence.
Getting into the camps was not easy; it was necessary to tell the bosses that the purpose of the expedition was to record folksongs. But when the songs had been recorded and the bosses had gone away, die real business began. Upon being told the purpose of the interviews, the debt slaves spoke freely into the microphone.
"They can't do no more than kill us," a turpentine worker at Fruit Cove, Florida, said. "I have heard a few of the old men say the only way out is to die out, but I have also heard it said that the truth shall make you free!"
The sordid tales unfolded hour after hour on to the toneband-lynching, flogging, rape, the castor-oil treatment. There was scarcely a man or woman who had not personally felt the bosses' lash.
With such horrors associated with life in the slave labor camps, one may wonder how it is that people are forced into them. The principal factor is starvation. The fact that Negroes are "lot hired and first fired" serves to drive many unemployed workers into selling themselves and their families into slavery. Inflation in the slave ran market has led to cash advances as high as 500 dollars being offered to some skilled workers. Ordinarily, however, 25 dollars or less will do the trick.
The professional "labor recruiter" is in many respects a twentieth century counterpart of the slave-traders of old. Turpentine camp operators, for example, pay recruiters something like 5 dollars per head for every single man, and 10 dollars for each family brought in.
Joe Hall, who operates a fleet of seven trucks in which he transports hundreds of Negro men, women, and children back and forth between Florida and Pennsylvania as the harvest demands, is a typical labor recruiter. In this traffic he has the active co-operation of the U.S. Employment Service. He tells this agency that he charges no transportation fees-and then proceeds to assess each worker 10 dollars. Obtaining recruits by painting rosy word pictures of the wages to be earned, he generally pays only half of the promised rate, works them under a gun, houses them in a barn, and feeds them on beans after assessing them 5 dollars per week for board. When his workers seek to escape, as they did at Ulysses, Pennsylvania, KKK fiery crosses are burned. When this fails to work, Hall has the escapees arrested.
"Don't you know they can't make you work against your will in satisfaction of a debt?" the author asked a group of forced laborers at Mandarin, Florida.
"They do it, was their bitter reply.
The alternative to working out a debt with the company or planter is to work it out with the county prison-to "chain-gang it". From the workers' point of view, there is not much choice. Though the chain-gang sentence at "hard labor" may be at the rate of as little as one day for each. 50 cents he is said to owe, at least the worker knows there will eventually be an end of it, whereas the private "employer" may conspire to keep him perpetually in bondage.
Comer-stone of the forced labor system is the company commissary. There are some 4,200 members of the National Industrial Stores Association, and their commissaries do a 1,000,000,000-dollar business every year. Symbolic of the compulsion to buy and the compulsion to pay is the toe of a lynched Negro, kept as a "souvenir" on a commissary counter near Hendersonville, North Carolina. Asked whether he would personally take part in the lynching of a Negro, the manager replied slowly, " "No, no. I wouldn't-not unless he owed me money."
The fare afforded by the commissary is extremely limited, consisting of a few canned goods, meal, flour, dried beans, and salted or smoked pork fat. Fresh vegetables, meat, fruit, eggs, milk and butter are virtually unheard of. One Negro turpentine worker at Kansas City, Florida, when asked how often fresh meat was available in his camp, replied, "Neither weekly nor yearly." Another, relatively lucky, said that his camp at Moniak, Georgia, offered the workers a choice each weekend of "pig ears, pig tails, or pig feet". Needless to say, such a diet gives rise to all kinds of dietary diseases, such as rickets and pellagra.
Medical attention is almost never available in the camps, the workers being forced to rely upon home remedies and self-medication.
In many camps the bosses will not tolerate any degree of illness as an excuse for not working. At the lumber mill camp operated by McDuffie Stallworth at Pineapple, Alabama, any worker who complains of illness is forcibly given two bottles of castor oil-and made to work, anyway. Childbearing almost never takes place in a hospital and only rarely is there a doctor in attendance-the woman is lucky if she can obtain the services of a midwife. The death-rate among both mothers and infants at childbirth is many times higher among these workers than with the American population generally.
Home life in the slave labor camps is a living hell. The company owned shacks almost always have leaky roofs; if there are any windows at all, they are protected neither by screens nor glass. Sometimes the cracks in the walls are so large that, as one worker described it, "You can see almost as much of the outside from inside the house as you could if you went out the door." Migratory farm workers frequently are forced to live in even worse "housing", constructed of pieces of tin and cardboard cartons. Flies and vermin of all sorts spread diseases, which take a heavy toll.
In the slave labor camps the mandatory work day lasts from "can to can't - from "can see to can't see", or in other words, from before dawn until dark. It is one of the woman's duties to wake her husband, feed him, and have him ready to go to work at the appointed hour. If she fails in this, the penalties are often severe. For example, it is the custom of Murray Holloway, the woods-rider for the Cordele Turpentine Company at Cordele, Georgia, to ride through the Negro quarters about 4.30 every morning, shouting for the workers to clamber upon his truck to be driven into the woods. If a man is not ready when called, Holloway may beat the man, and his wife too. For instance, he beat Cleo Odom for not having given her husband breakfast soon enough, and when her husband Joe protested, Holloway knocked him unconscious with a dub.
The work, too, is often hazardous. In the turpentine industry, for example, the American operators finally adopted a technique developed by the Soviet Union for increasing the flow of sap by spraying the tree gashes with sulphuric acid. But in the U.S.A., no protection from the add is provided for the workers who apply it.
In St. John's County, Florida, the author came across a worker who is called "Red Eye" because the acid has nearly destroyed his eyesight.
"We even have to buy our own soda to put on our acid bums," he declared.
It is often the woman's lot to be left with her children as "hostages", since virtually the only real route to escape from the bondage of debt slavery is for the husband to run away under cover of darkness, leaving his family and possessions behind as "security" to be held until such time as he may be able to procure a bona-fide job which will enable him to save enough money to pay off whatever amount the planter asserts the family owes him.
Sometimes the bosses call upon the sheriff or police to bring back runaway slave laborers At Cross City, Florida, the author heard a boss telephone the sheriff and order him to post guards on all the roads leading out of the area to block the escape of a Negro who bad left camp allegedly owing is dollars.
At this same camp, a worker told how the boss had killed workers for owing as little as 5 dollars, "and you would have to die, because he would kill you and make the other hands bury you out in the woods."
Most often, the bosses strap pistols on their belts and go after runaways themselves. The authorities not only do not interfere in this procedure, but obligingly grant the bosses permits to carry pistols. When this sort of "free enterprise" fails to "get its man", die bosses call on the hooded Ku Klux Klan for assistance in recapturing the runaways and terrorizing the rest of the workers.
There is nothing at all subtle about the handling of runaways. For instance, when James Wiggins and his wife ran away from the plantation of J. S. Decker at Clarksdale, Mississippi, where they had been forced to work in the fields under a gun, they were brought back in chains and offered for sale for 175 dollars. Similarly, a lumber-mill operator of Lauderdale County, Mississippi, kept one of his Negro workers shackled to his bunk with a log-chain around his neck each night, to prevent him from running out on an alleged 20-dollar debt.
Here are just a few of the typical cases brought to light by the author.
Charles Andrews clubbed with a pine-knot while another boss pointed a pistol at him. His offence: trying to escape from a labor camp near Bunnell, Florida.
Roy Jackson given a "pistol whipping" by the boss of a turpentine camp at Cordele, Georgia. His offence: picking up a shirt, which he thought had been discarded.
Robert Graves, sawmill worker of Pineapple, Alabama, tied over a barrel and the "blood knocked out" with a piece of sawmill belt. His offence: leaving work to report, as ordered, to a military draft board.
James Day, worker who escaped from the turpentine camp of William Belote at Moniak, Georgia. Day was forced to leave behind his four small children as hostages for a 200-dollar debt he was falsely said to owe. He appealed to the U.S. District Attorney and the F.B.I. in Macon, to no avail. When he finally went into court to claim possession of his kidnapped children, he was thrown into jail on a charge of having abandoned them! The sheriff, accompanied by boss Belote, offered to release Day and forget about the alleged debt if Day would agree to go back to work at the turpentine camp.
James Alford, who left his wife and two children as hostages for an alleged 30-dollar debt at the camp of Colonel Dorsey at Cordele, Georgia. Colonel Dorsey jailed Alford's wife for refusing to tell where her husband had gone. Alford, who had found a job in Florida with a view to paying the 30 dollars and reclaiming his wife and children, heard of the arrest and so returned to Cordele. Upon arrival he was jailed on a charge of vagrancy, even though he had proof of employment. In court he was sentenced to pay a fine of 150 dollars or serve 12 months at hard labor on the chain gang.
"You will just have to shoot me or electrocute me or do what you will," Alford told the judge, "but I can't serve 12, months because I have a wife and two children to take care of."
Colonel Dorsey and another white boss were in court, bidding for the privilege of paying Alford's fine in order to secure a slave laborer The other man carried a paper big full of money, but the judge awarded Alford to Colonel Dorsey, with orders to work out the full amount of 18o dollars on Dorsey's plantation.
George Messenger and his wife Katherine, elderly white sharecroppers of Pensacola, Florida, were sentenced to seven years at hard labor in the Florida State Penitentiary for non-payment of an alleged $232.76 grocery debt contracted by their son-in-law. Their three young daughters were taken from them, placed in orphanages, and offered for adoption.
Not content with the total exploitation of their slave laborers economically, many planters seek also to exploit their women slaves sexually. One of the most notorious cases was that in which a 30-man KKK firing squad executed two Negro war veterans, George Dorsey and Roger Malcolm and their wives, because one of the women had refused to sleep with the white planter for whom they were forced to share-crop.
Many women are also held as domestic servants. Dora Jones, a 57-year-old Negro woman, testified that she had been forced to serve as maid to a white couple for 29 years without pay. in another case, Zenovia Selles, a 23-year-old Puerto Rican girl, was found crying on the streets of New York. She told of being brought in from Puerto Rico to work for an American family as a maid, and after three months had not been given any payment for her labor In still another case, Albert S. Johnson, owner of a 2,000-acre cotton plantation at Helena, Arkansas, was charged by his common-law wife Dosha Moon with forcing her and her three daughters to work for him under penalty of beating and death. And when Essie Lee Wright, a Negro girl, sought to escape from Johnson's plantation in a truck, Johnson shot the tyres off the truck, explaining to the authorities that she was "obligated to work for him".
Such was the picture of domestic forced labor as the author found and recorded it. He was forced to conclude that at least one and a half million native-born Americans, exclusive of their families, were currently being held in forced labor It was also discovered that ever since the outbreak of World War II, the U.S. Government, at the behest of American planters, has permitted the importation of millions of farm-workers from nearby colonial and semi-colonial areas. The bulk of these are the so-called Mexican "wetbacks", so named because they swim across the Rio Grande River to enter the U.S.A. illegally, while U.S. border police look the other way. The President's Commission on Migratory Labor, in its Report issued in 1951, conceded that the great majority of these Mexican nationals are peonized on American plantations, with the connivance of governmental agencies.
"Wetbacks who are without funds to pay the smuggler for bringing them in or to pay the trucker-contractor who furnishes transportation from the boundary to the farm are frequently sold from one exploiter to the next' this Report confesses. "For example, the smuggler will offer to bring a specified number of wetbacks across the river for such an amount as ten or fifteen dollars per man. The trucker, who will then buy the wetback party by paying off the smuggler, will meet the smuggler with his party in tow. The trucker, in turn, will have a deal to deliver the workers to farm employers at an agreed-upon price per head.
"Once on the U.S. side of the border and on the farm numerous devices are employed to keep the wetback on the job. His pay, or some portion thereof, is frequently held back. The wetback is a hungry human being. He is a fugitive, and it is as a fugitive that he lives. Under the constant threat of apprehension and deportation, he cannot protest, no matter how unjustly he is treated."
The next largest group of imported forced laborers consists of Negroes from the British West Indies. During the period from 1943 to 1950 a total Of 93,178 of these were brought in with the sanction of the U.S. Government. Besides these, there were about 10,000 Puerto Ricans who are working on U.S. farms under contracts sanctioned by the U.S. Government; and many more have been imported and peonized while the Government turned its back.
Just as the planters must generally pay out so much per head to acquire wetbacks, they must also post surety bonds with the U.S. Immigration Service in importing contract labor The bond required is 100 dollars for each Jamaican, 50 dollars for each Bahaman, and 25 dollars for each Mexican. At least a third of the Mexicans who have been brought in under contract have escaped from the plantations to which they were assigned, and in such cases the planters must forfeit the bonds, which therefore are tantamount to being the purchase price of the workers.
To the planters, labor is labor - they are interested only in getting the work done as cheaply as possible. As the Manager of the California Beet-growers' Association told the President's Commission: "We have used great numbers of the so-called stoop labor class of labor throughout the years. We have gone through the whole gamut. We have used Chinamen, Japs, Hindus, Filipinos, Mexican nationals, Mexican wetbacks if you please, American Indians, Negroes, Bahamans, prisoners of war, and what-have-you. We have always been willing to take any kind of labor that we could get when we needed them."
And a big cotton-planter of Arkansas told the Commission: "Cotton is a slave crop, and nobody is going to pick it that does not have to. Now the Texas-Mexicans have found out they can get other kinds of work, and so the Mexican wetback is about the only reservoir of labor that we know of."
(In 1957, California planters prevailed upon the U.S. Government to import Japanese farm-laborers under three-year contracts. One of these, Keizo Koshigeta, reported in a letter to the Tokyo Asahi Shimbun in 1958: "1 have been in California for one year now as a farm laborer, and there has been trouble which we never anticipated at the time we left Japan. The trouble has been over income tax, transfers to other farms, and individual activities ... we are among the lowest paid workers in the United States ... our net pay comes to less than 40 cents an hour. Even when we want to transfer to another farm that pays a gross rate of $1.10 instead Of 75 cents per hour, we cannot do so of our own free will. We would like the authorities concerned to give adequate consideration to these points in preparation for the short-term farm laborers who are scheduled to come to the U.S.A. this spring." In his letter Koshigeta added that every time the Japanese Consul-General in San Francisco visited the labor camp he said, "The difference in political and economic power between Japan and the United States is the reason why everything cannot be done just as you want- it to be, but we would like you to endure them if you come up against some hardships.")
Another major group caught in the toils of forced labor are the migratory farm-workers who make their way across the face of the American comment each year in their efforts to eke out a living from seasonal employment. Physical as well as legalistic and psychological coercion is employed to force many migratory workers to "stay put" or "move on" at the dictate of the planters, aided and abetted in many instances by governmental authorities. just as the substitution of wage slavery for chattel slavery relieved the former slave-owning class of responsibility for the upkeep of their laborers, so has the substitution of migratory labor for resident firm labor served the same end.
The living conditions of these workers are so bad as to defy description The dismal scenes portrayed of the great Oklahoma "Dust Bowl" migrations to California during the 1930's in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath have not disappeared in the least. on the contrary, a probe by the Colorado State Commission in, 1950 and subsequent investigations by the Federal Government, have found that in many respects conditions have worsened.
At the bottom of their plight is the land hunger, which especially afflicts the segregated territory. Throughout the Black Belt of the South, where Negroes are in the majority, 73 per cent of all families own no land. In the Red River Bottoms the proportion rises to 80 per cent, and in the Delta Region go per cent of all families are landless.
The United Nations, after extensive surveys, has listed the southern region of the U.S.A. as one of the "backward and underfed" areas of the world. Even during the relatively prosperous wartime boom year of 1943, thirty million of the South's people were underfed, according to a survey of the National Research Council. Anemia due to iron deficiency in the diet, and generally aggravated by intestinal worm infestations, is extremely common. Hookworm infestation reaches 100 per cent of the population of some rural Florida counties in Tennessee 50 percent of the entire farm population suffers from vitamin A deficiency.
Returning to his home, the author set about transcribing the recorded interviews and compiling his other data into a memorandum, which was delivered to- the U.N. Committee on September 15, 1952. At the same time, he asked that he be permitted to testify before the final hearings scheduled to be held in Geneva, Switzerland, and to bring some American forced laborers with him. The Committee agreed to hear him, but said it was "not keen about interviewing forced laborers in person, but preferred to hear experts".
The author was given ten days to get to Geneva, at his own expense (all previous witnesses had had their expenses paid, including a liberal per them allowance). Before testifying, the author was questioned privately by the Committee's Secretary, Manfred Simon, who remarked: "Of course, the U.S. Government does all it can to eliminate forced labor".
The line of questioning pursued by the Committee Chairman, Sir Ramaswami Mudaliar of India, further revealed the group's orientation.
"How can you say that Mexicans are held in forced labor in the U.S.A., when they sign their work contracts voluntarily?" he demanded.
"Since time immemorial, the author replied, "men have been forced by economic pressures to sell themselves and their families into slavery, and in my estimation this only makes the slavery the more despicable!"
Not finding such replies to his liking, Sir Ramaswami soon instructed the author to make his prepared statement.
"Forced laborers in the U.S.A. are not prisoners of war or persons convicted of some crime against the state, but rather are 'guilty' only of belonging to some vulnerable racial, economic, national, or occupational group," the author pointed out. "Moreover, their labor is not dedicated to the public welfare, but is exploited purely for private profit.
"However, the Government's having given a free hand to the private exploiters of forced labor does not in any wise mitigate the fact that the system could not function without the overt collaboration and covert sanction of Government at all levels-local, state, and national. If the U.N. Committee is to do justice, it must recognize that in the U.S.A. those laws, which constitute the legalistic framework for the forced labor system, are cleverly cloaked in other guises. Besides the compulsory military service act, immigration laws, and fraud laws, there are the vagrancy laws, labor recruiting laws, and laws dealing with contracts. In the absence of such 'enabling legislation', the exploiters of forced labor would be obliged to rely entirely, rather than partly as at present, upon such extralegal instruments of coercion as the club, lash, and pistol.
"The Federal Government as represented by its legislative, judicial, and law enforcement branches-Congress, Supreme Court, and Department of Justice-is charged under the Constitution and Federal law with the responsibility of stamping out forced labor. But the Government makes a practice of not practicing the enforcement of these laws, and consequently what the State Department claims are 'effective safeguards' are rendered dead letters and mere scraps of paper.
"Painful though my role may be, I consider it my patriotic duty to do what I can to bring the healing heat of world opinion to bear upon the cancerous growth of forced labor that afflicts my homeland. I do not see how the United States can enjoy either self-respect or the respect of the community of nations if such things arc kept hidden.
"For the benefit of any who take stock in such things, let me say that two of my forebears-Willlam William and Arthur Middleton -signed the American Declaration of Independence. In the exercise of much the same right to disavow tyranny, I here and now declare my independence from those powers in American life who have usurped the democratic prerogatives of the people and who are responsible for such evils as forced labor in our land. In so doing I am confident that I speak for the great bulk of the American people who believe in liberty and justice for all.
"In conclusion, I wish only to ask, on behalf of 0 the forced laborers in the U.S.A., that the Committee remove the gag which has kept them in silence, by transmitting their pleas to the General Assembly of the United Nations so that the world may hear and judge."
With that, Sir Ramaswami summarily dismissed the author. In its official Press release issued later that day, the Committee suppressed the author's statement. In marked contrast, the Committee had issued voluminous accounts of charges leveled by previous witnesses, against certain other countries. It was not too surprising, therefore, that when the Committee issued its 621-page Report, a mere handful of pages were devoted to charges against the U.S.A. The documentary evidence contained in the author's Memorandum and statement had all been consigned to the waste-paper basket!
"All of Mr. Kennedy's allegations are general charges and do not appear to be supported by any proof", the State Department sanctimoniously concluded the Committee's Report.
in 1956 the Soviet Union announced the liquidation of its labor camps, and by 1957, when the International Labor Organization, in association with the United Nations, drafted an agreement against forced labor, an indictment of debt slavery was prominently included, and the United States felt obliged to sign on the dotted line.