‘Neighborhood Watch’ Groups Like Zimmerman’s and in Much of the Deep South Are Hardly Different Than Slave Patrols of Old

George Zimmerman kept close watch over his neighborhood. When Black men walked or even drove through the area, he alerted the police, over and over and over again [3]. Finally, exasperated that “they always” got away, he went out on a rainy night armed with a loaded gun and the Stand Your Ground law, looking for anybody who should not be in his largely White neighborhood.

The South has a long history of this sort of thing. They used to be called Slave Patrols.

Prior to the Civil War and Reconstruction, the main way Southern states maintained the institution of slavery was through local and statewide militias, also known as “Slave Patrols.” These Patrols were, in many states, required monthly duty for southern white men between the ages of 17 and 47, be they slave-owners or not.

Slave patrollers traveled, usually on horseback [the modern equivalent would be in a car], through the countryside looking for African-Americans who were “not where they belonged.” When the patrollers found Black people in places where they “did not belong,” punishment ranged from beatings, to repatriation to their slave owners, to death by being whipped, hung or shot.

Some of the most comprehensive reports on the nature and extent of the Slave Patrols came from interviews done by the WPA (the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal program created by FDR) during the Great Depression. At that time, former slaves and the children of former slaves were still alive and had stories to tell, and the WPA put people to work in the American South gathering and documenting those stories.

The WPA’s Georgia Writers Project, Savannah Unit, produced a brilliant summary of stories taken from people who were alive (most as children) during the time of slavery, about their and their families interactions with slave patrollers. The report’s title was “Drums and Shadows: survival stories among the Georgia coastal Negroes [4]).

Many other oral and written histories compiled by the WPA Writers Project are now maintained by the Library of Congress [5].

Dozens of other similar reports, as well as detailed state-by-state studies of slave patrols, even including membership rosters, are published in Sally E. Hadden’s brilliant book “Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas [6].” 

Hadden cites numerous stories and scores of sources about how the slave patrollers would beat, whip, or otherwise abuse African-Americans who were found off the plantation. Women were routinely subjected to rape, and men were usually beaten with sticks or whips. Hadden writes of the stories compiled by the WPA:

this summary [7]:

“Slaves are never allowed to leave the plantation to which they belong, without a written pass. Should anyone venture to disobey this law, he will most likely be caught by the patrol and given thirty-nine lashes.

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As Carl T Bogus writes in his brilliant article for the University of California Davis Law Review, “The Hidden History of the Second Amendment [8],” a police state of sorts was necessary to enforce slavery in the old South. An essential part of that police state was the Slave Patrols. As Patrick Henry, the largest slave owner in Virginia, and slave-owner James Madison noted in their debates at the Virginia constitutional ratifying convention, these slave patrols were state militias, and were protected, at least in the South, by the very careful wording of the Second Amendment that, in final draft, gave militia powers not to the nation but to the individual states. You can read Patrick Henry’s argument for that below, and James Madison’s comment on Henry’s concern in “Extracts From The Madison Papers [9]” available on Google books.

In a previous article [10], I documented how these southern militia slave patrols were acknowledged and incorporated into the Second Amendment. That Second Amendment tip of the hat to white power has now been expanded and amplified with the so-called Stand Your Ground laws.

Patrick Henry to the Virginia Ratifying Convention (June 1788) arguing for a Bill of Rights to be ratified along with the Constitution in order to preserve slavery:

Thom Hartmann is an author and nationally syndicated daily talk show host. His newest book is The Thom Hartmann Reader.