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Seizing Freedom: Slave Emancipation and Liberty for All

Forceful and detailed account of the struggle for “freedom” after the American Civil War
How did America recover after its years of civil war? How did freed men and women, former slaves, respond to their newly won freedom? David Roediger’s radical new history redefines the idea of freedom after the jubilee, using fresh sources and texts to build on the leading historical accounts of Emancipation and Reconstruction.

Reinstating ex-slaves’ own “freedom dreams” in constructing these histories, Roediger creates a masterful account of the emancipation and its ramifications on a whole host of day-to-day concerns for Whites and Blacks alike, such as property relations, gender roles, and labor.


  • Seizing Freedom persuasively documents the self-emancipation of the enslaved Black folk of the American South. A meticulously researched book, it offers close readings of verbal and visual texts, unfailingly attentive to issues of race, gender, and labor coming together and falling apart. It brilliantly brings together disability studies, race in the Civil War, and the disappearance of the gold standard. A worthy supplement to Du Bois's Black Reconstruction.”
  • “This sparkling book does more than merely restore and underscore the agency of bold worker-slaves in attempts to make the US democratic and free. It aims artfully at the underlying mechanisms of revolutionary transformation: imagination and solidarity, time, labor and the human body, gender, class and race. In Roediger’s hands, these are neither dry nor overly abstract categories. The insurgent history of abolition gets resuscitated and used vividly to address a host of stalled contemporary debates and ossified styles of thought.”
  • “Sweeping in its scope and filled with brilliant and original insights, this book reminds us of how little still is our appreciation both for what slaves accomplished between 1860 and 1865 and how beholden the national labor movement and the woman suffrage campaigns were to the 'general strike' they won...Evocative and inspiring, Seizing Freedom represents a landmark study by one of the foremost scholars of the history of race and labor in our time that will fundamentally challenge the way we understand the moral and practical power of emancipation.”
  • Seizing Freedom, David Roediger's spellbinding account of black self-emancipation and the array of movements accelerated by this 'general strike of the slaves' as DuBois put it, reminds us that it is never too late to take up the democratic promise of Radical Reconstruction.”
  • “Building on W. E. B. Du Bois’s depiction of the Civil War as a workers’ strike, Roediger traces the rise and fall of a social revolution—a jubilee—that in the course of a terrible war and its turbulent aftermath opened up the prospect of a more just nation, one in which all people could stand on a level and equitable ground. Asking readers to consider the slaves’ revolution alongside the struggles of the wartime wounded for a nation’s respect, women’s continued fight for full citizenship, and a working class who rallied to advance their own interests against a war-bloated industrial sector, Roediger repackages what are often told as separate narratives into a single story about how, under certain historical conditions, the impossible can come to pass. David Roediger reminds us that jubilee remains within reach.”
  • “In insisting that the emancipation of the slaves has continuing relevance to the human quest for freedom, Roediger invites us to engage in the on-going conversation between past(s) and present(s) that inform all emancipatory struggles.”
  • “Roediger suggests that we might learn from this period as we observe similar moments of convergence rise and fall...decidedly scholarly in its tone and careful positioning of its assertions.”
  • “In resurrecting Du Bois’ insight, Roediger supplies a useful corrective to overly simplistic, top-down emancipation narratives. Where this book works best is in ‘telling a good set of stories usually kept apart’ and illustrating how freedom struggles can succeed, as well as how they fail.”
  • “Building on W. E. B. Du Bois’s depiction of the Civil War as a workers’ strike, Roediger traces the rise and fall of a social revolution— a jubilee—that through a terrible war and its turbulent aftermath opened up the prospect of a more just nation, one in which all people could stand on level, equitable ground. Slaves and their efforts to seize freedom give Roediger a place to start, but they are not his end point. Roediger is less interested in what slaves did for themselves than in how their achievements inspired a much greater mobilization that swept up and galvanized America’s marginalized peoples more generally…[Seizing Freedom] is a book, he promises, that ‘revises the whole story of emancipation’. This is a big claim, but master craftsman that he is, Roediger makes an effective case.”
  • “Rather than a traditional narrative of reconstruction, Seizing Freedom compels readers to consider the eras of emancipation and Reconstruction as one in which a variety of social movements that existed simultaneously drew inspiration from a notion of liberation enacted and defined by the slaves themselves…Roediger [makes] the intricate and compelling case for the ways in which the realization of the impossible—the slave’s self-emancipation—fueled and connected the variety of social movements of the time, especially the laborers’ campaigns for an eight-hour working day and women’s rights activists’ campaigns for suffrage…it is exactly this optimism and ingenuity that makes Seizing Freedom such an exciting and instructive read, both in terms of rethinking the past and reimagining the present.”
  • “[Roediger] concentrates on that revolutionary moment when the infectious jubilation of the freed slaves and their trust in the future inspired sympathizers in both North and South and sparked other freedom movements among workers, women, immigrants, and American Indians. It’s both a stirring and a cautionary tale, and one that I found has a surprising number of parallels in contemporary movements both in America and abroad.”


  • Forced Labor and Progress

    Published as part of Verso's Haymarket Series in 1996, Alex Lichtenstein's Twice the Work of Free Labor: The Political Economy of Convict Labor in the New South was the first book-length history of the convict-lease and chain gang systems of penal servitude in the Southern United States. Focusing on Georgia in the years between Reconstruction and the Great Depression, Lichtenstein traces the interwoven development of the region's notoriously brutal carceral forms and it's industrial and commercial expansion. "The postbellum history of Georgia's penal system," Lichenstein writes, "offers a clear illustration of how convict labor helped forge the peculiar New South 'Bourbon' political alliance, by accommodating the labor needs of an emerging class of industrialists without eroding the racial domination essential to planters."

    In the text below, the book's epilogue, Lichtenstein expands on his findings in a broader historical consideration of the relation between coerced labor and economic development.

    A Georgia road gang in Rockdale County in 1909, shortly after the state abolished convict leasing. (Vanishing Georgia Collection, Georgia Department of Archives and History).

    “There is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” –Walter Benjamin, "Theses on the Philosophy of History”1

    Diverse forms of forced labor have been found in many societies, under many conditions. Slavery and penal labor both existed in the ancient world. Serfdom shaped much of the character of premodern European social relations, and persisted well into the nineteenth century in Eastern Europe and Russia. As European societies shook off the last vestiges of feudalism, forced labor was carried to the New World, in a vast arc encompassing both the highlands and plantations of the Americas. In colonial Africa as well, European domination brought with it forms of coercive labor new to a continent that had long known indigenous slavery; and labor relations in industrialized South Africa under apartheid were clearly shaped by colonial strategies of labor extraction up until yesterday. Finally, Stalin's Gulag, and the Nazi labor and extermination camps, stand as horrific examples of forced labor in the modern world.

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  • The Year in Review: Verso authors reflect on 2016

    From the explosion in border walls to the rise of Donald Trump to the books that they've read along the way, Verso authors reflect on one of the most shocking years in recent history in this 2016 review.

    With contributions from: Franco Bifo Berardi, Christine Delphy, Keller Easterling, Nick Estes, Liz Fekete, Amber A'Lee Frost, Andrea Gibbons, Owen Hatherley, Eric Hazan, Helen Hester, Karen L. Ishizuka, Reece Jones, Costas Lapavitsas, Andreas Malm, Geoff Mann, Jane McAlevey, Ed Morales, David Roediger Nick Srnicek and Wolfgang Streeck.

    Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi
    , author of Heroes

    Ninety-nine years after the Soviet Revolution the stage is set for precipitation into global civil war. While the financial class exacerbates its agenda fuelling  unemployment and social devastation, the dynamics that led to Nazism are deploying worldwide. Nationalists are repeating what Hitler said to the impoverished workers of Germany: rather than as defeated workers, think of yourself as white warriors so you’ll win. They did not win, but they destroyed Europe. They will not win this time neither, but they are poised to destroy the world.

    After two centuries of colonial violence, we are now facing the final showdown. As worker’s internationalism has been destroyed by capital globalisation, a planetary bloodbath is getting almost unavoidable. 

    After centuries of colonial domination and violence, the dominators of the world are now facing a final showdown: the dispossessed of the world are reclaiming a moral and economic reward that the West is unwilling and unable to pay. The concrete historical debt towards those people that we have exploited cannot be paid because we are forced to pay the abstract financial debt.

    The collapse of capitalism is going to be interminable and enormously destructive, as long as a conscious subjectivity does not emerge.

    Christine Delphy, author of Separate and Dominate 

    The year now coming to an end has abounded with bad news on the political front. After a foul and very long debate on how we could ‘strip’ French citizens of their nationality – ultimately reaching the conclusion that this was impossible with regard to both French laws and international conventions – the government abandoned the bill. Immediately after that, a fresh bill was presented to ‘reform’ the labour code, largely getting rid of the majority of the guarantees enjoyed by workers. There was a mass mobilisation against this plan, lasting across the whole spring and part of summer. It opposed demonstrators in all France’s towns and cities to a police which, as the prime minister Manuel Valls put it, ‘had not been given any orders to show restraint’.

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  • The Sundown Town Vote in Wisconsin: Race-ing the Trump Victory

    This post first appeared in Counterpunch

    Janesville, Wisconsin. 

    Early in the evening during which Donald Trump’s election as president unfolded, I talked to a union activist friend in Wisconsin about something unrelated. In signing off, he said he expected to stay up late seeing if the Democrats regained a Senate seat in the state, Hillary Clinton’s victory being assured. A few hours later, it became clear that Donald Trump had instead carried Wisconsin by a razor-thin margin. Who, MSNBCers wondered, were these hidden Trump voters that delivered in Wisconsin one of the three Rust Belt victories paving Trump’s road to the White House.

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Other books by David R. Roediger

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