Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Phil Thompson discusses the historical opposition to slavery as a labor system, and the Black struggle to advance economic and human rights in a production by The Next System Project.


One of the most profound movements, and one of the first real social movements in American history was all about slavery, and that’s labor.

And it was about creating a different kind of democracy, different kind of way of thinking about the economy, and I think these battles aren’t over.

The African American portion of American wealth as a whole is 3% today, and the last time it was 3% was in 1868, three years after slavery.

African-Americans going back to before the civil war, in the earliest African-American spokespersons and writers, and leaders, like Frederick Douglas and others, argued that the fundamental feature of the American economy is dehumanization.

And they also argued that you can’t have a democratic constitution and an economic system that degrades and exploits people.

Many of the radical Republicans who fought for the Civil War and in the Civil War believed the same thing.

I think the true intent of the 13th amendment wasn’t just to eliminate chattel slavery; it was to eliminate all forms of economic oppression, and create what we would now call living wages for everybody. I think that was the true intent.

But these things were overthrown. After the civil war there was a counter-revolution, Lincoln’s assassination, the destruction of reconstruction.

We got segregation, which wasn’t just about making white people feel superior; it was about a cheap labor force, which persisted.

The 1963 March on Washington where everyone sees Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, well King wasn’t head of that march – A. Phillip Randolph was, the first black trade union president.

The demand of the march was for jobs and freedom. Jobs came even before freedom.

That sort of dream of a new kind of economy was tightly connected with thinking about voting rights, and a new kind of politics.

And when African-Americans said, “We refuse to work as basically semi-slave laborers with no rights, and no voting rights, and no protections,” and my generation said, “We’re not going to do that work our parents did,” then employers started bringing undocumented immigrants into the country to work with no rights and no protections.

And when the government said, “Well, what are we going to do with all these young folks, like me, who don’t want to do this kind of semi-slave work,” they didn’t reform the economy, they said, “Let’s lock ‘em up.”

And we got mass incarceration.

And so I think all of these things are related to our history. All of these things are part of the challenge of changing the system. And the system connects these things.

This video was first published on The Next System Project and has been reproduced here with permission.

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