"Worse Than Slavery": Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice.
At the forefront of "massive resistance" against the post-World War II civil rights movement, Mississippi gave birth to the Citizens' Council--the K.K.K. for the Rotary Club set--and was the site of several of the era's best-known racist murders: Emmett Till's 1954 lynching, the 1963 assassination of N.A.A.C.P. leader Medgar Evers and the 1964 murder of civil rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman. The state has earned its reputation as a four-syllable symbol of political backwardness and bloodthirsty racism, the linguistic condensation of a horrible ancien regime.
It's therefore not surprising that, as the civil rights/Jim Crow era recedes enough to become grist for historians, Mississippi would figure prominently in the new scholarship. Neil McMillen's Dark Journey: Black Mississippians in the Age of Jim Crow (1989) and James Cobb's The Most Southern Place on Earth: The Mississippi Delta and the Roots of Regional Identity (1992) offer a new strain in Southern history, one that presumes the defeat of the old white supremacist regime and seeks to reconstruct the intricacies of its life cycle. David Oshinsky's "Worse Than Slavery" is a significant contribution to this new scholarship.
"Worse Than Slavery," like Alex Lichtenstein's Twice the Work of Free Labor: The Political Economy of Convict Labor in the New South (1996), also provides a chilling and important frame of reference for making sense of the steadily escalating crime hysteria. As the injustice and barbarism of the Jim Crow era disappear from living memory, recalling the precedents for such currently popular measures as chain gangs, convict labor, privatization of penal facilities and criminalization of poverty is an important civic service. Also like Lichtenstein, Oshinsky grounds his discussion of Southern penal practices in the dynamics of the region's racialized political economy, chiefly the imperatives of enforcing labor discipline and a suffocating racial subordination.
The Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman Farm, the central object of "Worse Than Slavery," is not introduced till nearly halfway through the book. After a prologue reflecting on the state's distinctive history as a violent society on the antebellum frontier, Oshinsky begins his account with Emancipation and the conflict between blacks' efforts to realize the benefits of their freedom and whites' insistence on denying those aspirations. The Black Codes, passed by a state legislature dominated by planters and former Confederate insurrectionists, already in 1865 expressed the principles that drove Mississippi's penal system for the next century. As Oshinsky describes them, the aim of the Black Codes was
to control the labor supply, to protect the freedom from his own "vices," and to ensure the superior position of whites in southern life. "While some of [these acts] may seem rigid and stringent to sickly modern humanitarians," the legislators declared, "the wicked and improvident, the vagabond and meddler, must be smarted [and] reformed." ... The Black Codes listed specific crimes for the "free negro" alone: "mischief," "insulting gestures," "cruel treatment to animals," and the "vending of spiritous or intoxicating liquors." Free blacks were also prohibited from keeping firearms and from cohabiting with whites.... At the heart of these codes were the vagrancy and enticement laws, designed to drive ex-slaves back to their home plantations. The Vagrancy Act provided that "all free negroes and mulattoes over the age of eighteen" must have written proof of a job at the beginning of every year. Those found "with no lawful employment...shall be deemed vagrants, and on conviction...fined a sum not exceeding...fifty dollars." The Enticement Act made it illegal to lure a worker away from his employer by offering him inducements of any kind.
The post-Emancipation criminal code was thus established as a vehicle of racial subordination, a device for realizing the linked objectives of stabilizing a cheap, tractable labor supply and undercutting blacks' capacities for effective participation in civic life. In effect, the state functioned as collective slavemaster: "Throughout the South, thousands of ex-slaves were being arrested, tried, and convicted for acts that in the past had been dealt with by the master alone."
For most of its modern history Mississippi's public powers of coercion have been directed toward criminalizing the state's black population. An 1876 "Pig Law" drastically lowered the threshold for grand larceny; the number of convicts quadrupled between 1874 and 1877, and in Mississippi, as elsewhere in the region after Emancipation, blacks were always a heavy majority of the incarcerated population. As with the contemporary criminalization of petty drug offenses, the Pig Law had little impact on crime--except the ironically iatrogenic one of increasing the population officially classified as criminals.
As "Worse Than Slavery" makes clear, political and economic subordination were inseparable elements of a single program. Criminalization of the black population depended first of all on the premature termination of Reconstruction. Blacks never were able to establish full equality before the law--for instance, to serve on juries in cases with white principals or to petition effectively against whites. With Redemption, however, blacks were not only forcibly removed from electoral participation; they were eliminated from jury service across the board--with justifications ranging from the blunt assertion of white prerogative to arguments, eerily like those circulating after the O. J. Simpson verdict, that blacks were inherently incapable of exercising sound civic judgment. Oshinsky's account underscores the point made by W.E.B. Du Bois against Booker T. Washington, that political participation and civil rights are necessary conditions for economic security and well-being.
Political, economic and penal suppression came together perhaps most clearly in another of Mississippi's contributions to the white supremacist apparatus, the convict lease system. Begun in the late 1860s and made law in the Leasing Act of 1876, the system allowed private individuals to rent convict labor for their own purposes. The leasing system--codified after the Mississippi Democrats' violent 1875 electoral putsch in state government and the removal of federal troops--extended from state to country and local prisons and applied almost exclusively to blacks. Its language, technically "race blind" in a way that parallels contemporary racists' coded sophistries, accomplished its actual objective by
setting aside the old penitentiary in Jackson to house prisoners serving ten years or more. The intent, said lawmakers, was to keep the most dangerous criminals behind well-guarded prison walls. In truth, however, the real issue was race. Though far fewer in number, white convicts received longer sentences than blacks because the courts of Mississippi did not normally punish whites for anything except the most heinous of crimes.
Oshinsky describes the considerable fortunes made by planters and industrialists under the convict lease system by the time that it completely disappeared. (It spread quickly throughout the South, and Alabama was the last state to terminate it in the 1920s.) The system amounted to socialized slavery, with the state operating as catcher and trader. Planters easily lapsed into familiar ways of viewing black labor:
"The crop [here] is being considerably damaged by want of sufficient labor," a landowner complained. "I hope you will send additional convicts without a moment's delay." At times, these planters requested "darkies" and "niggers" as if emancipation had never really occurred. "When you get a moment," wrote one, "won't you send a slave out to fix my cemetery fence?"
The beauty of this new slave labor system, from the lessees' point of view, was that it removed the need to balance extraction of work effort against protection of a long-term investment in workers as chattel, thus removing whatever pressure had once existed to treat slaves decently enough to insure their physical survival. The state, after all, was ultimately responsible for convicts' welfare, but the civic suppression of the black population and the context of terrorist racism absolved public authorities of any accountability. Complaints, or even questions, about the treatment of loved ones on a chain gang could generate fatal repercussions. Moreover, the objective of total racial repression guaranteed an expanding labor supply, further reducing restraint in treatment of prisoners, just as the system's economic attractiveness stimulated increasing demand from potential lessees.
Buttressed by poignant individual accounts, Oshinsky drives home a sense of the nightmarish brutality of the "convict labor machine." This extended to incarceration and leasing out of children as young as 6 or 7; by 1880 "at least one convict in four was an adolescent or a child--a percentage that did not diminish over time." As the lease system approached its zenith, mortality among Mississippi convicts nearly doubled to a rate fifteen times higher than norms for convict mortality outside the South; this increase, of course, was almost entirely concentrated among blacks. "In 1882, for example, 126 of 735 black state convicts perished, as opposed to 2 of 83 whites. Not a single leased convict ever lived long enough to serve a sentence of ten years or more."
Eventually, the convict labor system was abandoned (in Mississippi, ironically, by act of the 1890 constitutional convention that officially enthroned white supremacy), in part because of embarrassment at its excesses and largely because poor, upcountry whites objected that the system unfairly advantaged rich planters. From beginning to end, the system served to "undermine legal equality, harden racial stereotypes, spur industrial development, intimidate free workers, and breed open contempt for the law. It would turn a few men into millionaires and crush thousands of ordinary lives."
It is out of that history that the Parchman Farm was created. Opened in 1904 under Governor Vardaman, Parchman for most of the twentieth century operated as a highly profitable, publicly run cotton plantation with a network of farm camps decentralized over a facility of more than 20,000 acres. Headed in its heyday by a warden who lived in an antebellum-style mansion, Parchman was administered by a small number of paid guards and a loosely supervised complement of "trusty-shooters"--armed prisoners with license to brutalize and kill others. (Killing an escapee customarily earned pardon and release for trusties.)
Although Parchman's sordid history of brutality and inhuman neglect is vividly told, Oshinsky probably overstates its singularity as a horrible Southern gulag. I suspect that the facts are akin to my father's observation about state legislatures: The worst one in the country is the one presiding in the state where you are at the time. I do know that the Cummins Prison Farm in Arkansas (exposure of whose history of horrors first gave boy-Governor Bill Clinton national prominence) and Angola in Louisiana provoked the same kind of unspeakable terror among black people in those states as Parchman did for Mississippians. This point may be a quibble; Oshinsky certainly takes care to indicate that, while Mississippi may have been primus inter pares in the supremacist South, it was in no way sui generis.
Significantly, "Worse Than Slavery," like several of the other recent studies of the white supremacist era, dribbles off into ambiguity upon arriving at the post-Jim Crow present. I know it is difficult to assess the current situation in the Deep South in comparison with its past. Whenever I venture into the region, I am struck by how the ways things have changed underscore the ways they have not--and vice versa. White supremacy has disappeared as an explicit political order. The legislative victories of the second Reconstruction in the 1960s were real and seem secure. Still, the successes of David Duke, Kirk Fordice and others show that the forces of the ancien regime remain, lurking just beneath the surface of civic life, and a reactionary, racist turn in national politics has encouraged their eruption into open political discourse. Don't forget that Ronald Reagan kicked off his 1980 presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, site of the murder of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner; as if to make his intentions painfully clear, he called for more leadership of the sort provided by Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee.
As at the end of the first Reconstruction, in the face of this resurgent racism, liberal capitulation threatens to undermine those fragile victories and to embolden the forces of latter-day Redemption. The Democratic Leadership Council's dominance in the national Democratic Party at this point does not bode well. Nor does the Clinton Administration's willingness to soft-pedal its commitment to racial equality and to play to the worst tendencies that stigmatize and criminalize poor people in a barely veiled racist way. In this environment, "Worse Than Slavery," as well as the scholarly current of which it is a splendid exemplar, is an especially welcome reminder of precisely whence we've come and whither we should at all costs avoid returning.