When black progressives today think about the Civil War, they are often more struck by what didn’t happen than what did.
Michelle Alexander’s much-lauded The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness is a case in point. Citing W. E. B. Du Bois’s lament that “former slaves had ‘a brief moment in the sun’ before they were returned to a status akin to slavery,” Alexander intimates that abolitionists failed to see that slavery was just one instance in a series of forms of “racialized social control” that not only have reappeared, but have also “evolved” and “become perfected, arguably more resilient to challenge, and thus capable of enduring for generations to come.”
What this narrative of unremitting bleakness overlooks is that the South chose armed rebellion in order to maintain political control over its system of labor — a system that enslaved blacks while impoverishing white agricultural and industrial laborers. From the standpoint of Southern planters and industrialists, the most terrifying prospect of emancipation was the possibility that laborers, black and white, would eschew elite guidance and wield political power in the form of the ballot and office-holding to further their own interests.