Sam Cooke released the song “Chain Gain” in 1960. It’s a simple song with a catchy beat but it gives us a sad image of the way in which a lot of the American infrastructure was built during the post war era of the late 1940s, 50s and early 60s. Listen here;
President Dwight D. Eisenhower enacted the Interstate Highways Act in 1956 which committed America to build over 41,000 miles of highways linking every major city and state within 10 years. Eisenhower, a former WWII general believed that building a strong highway system was a matter of national defense, as it would provide a quick and efficient way to move people, goods and military hardware around the country. But true to form for most American federal politicians he left the actual construction up to the individual states, the federal government provided the money while the states issued the construction contracts and provided the labor.
The next time you drive through the American south, think about this, most of the highways you are driving on were originally constructed by convicts working on chain gains, most of them were black and forced to work at wages far below the going rate for their services. Take away the catchy beat and the happy-go-lucky sound of Sam Cooke’s voice and that’s the story that is being told in “Chain Gain.”
Now it’s not all doom and gloom. The last verse of “Chain Gain” actually talks about hope and the value of honest work. Sam Cooke sings “I’m going home one of these days, I’m going home, see my woman, whom I love so dear.” But overall, this is not a happy song.
I was reminded of these lyrics the other day when I was reading the 1930s classic “The Richest Man in Babylon.” At the height of the depression author George S. Clason wrote a series of parables about money and work set in ancient Babylon. At one point the hero of the story is sold into slavery and learns from a fellow slave that hard work is the only way to survive and one day earn your freedom. Indeed the only way to be given the opportunity to build wealth of your own is to love the work.
Remember, work, well-done, does good to the man who does it. It makes him a better man. – George S. Clason; The Richest Man in Babylon
The story goes on to tell how this slave earned the respect of his master through hard work enough to begin earning some money of his own, which he saved and was able to buy his freedom. Once a free man the former slave went on to become the richest man in Babylon. But it all started with work.
I’m not saying that it was okay for a government to build highways with slave, “forced” labor. But I am saying that when you have a job to do, do it well. Do it with a sense of purpose and vision for what that work could bring and it will make you a better person even if the work itself is not your ideal. Save a portion of your wages and you will eventually be afforded the freedom to do what you want.
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