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Roots of Disorder: Race and Criminal Justice in the American South, 1817-80.

Roots of Disorder: Race and Criminal Justice in the American South, 1817-80. By Christopher Waldrep (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1998. xiv plus 267pp.).

Over the last decade, scholars have challenged the traditional belief that law is neutral and objective, divorced from politics, and unmarred by personal attitudes. Critical race and legal theorists, historians, and feminist scholars have led the assault, exposing the ways in which people, politics, social context, and race have structured law and justice.

A study of the roots of folk violence in the 19th century, Christopher Waldrep's Roots of Disorder maintains that white southerners--not just elites, but ordinary citizens as well--shaped the law and meted out justice. Simultaneously a study of legal discourse and a social history, Waldrep focuses on Warren County, Mississippi, and explores how whites' "general hostility to law and courts," combined with racial antipathy, contested constitutionalism. Drawing upon such sources as Warren County court cases between 1817 and 1879, diaries, and newspaper accounts, Waldrep examines the "crimes ordinary people wanted enforced" as a way of rendering visible everyday southern white legal culture to explain why extralegal "law" ultimately prevailed as the popular method of racial discipline. Waldrep makes clear that he does not view Vicksburg and Warren County as typical of the South, but as a "laboratory" for understanding the emergence of extralegal violence. But he does contend that the exploitation of blacks durin g and after slavery and white people's growing distrust of formal law were quintessentially southern trends and "perhaps [even] central to the national character." Even so, the subtitle of his book--Race and Criminal Justice in the American South--is a bit misleading given his study primarily concentrates on one county in Mississippi.

The first three chapters focus on how law and mob law, formal and informal justice, coexisted harmoniously on and off the plantation, although there is a particular emphasis on the issues of slavery, property, and race. Prior to the Civil War, the overwhelming majority of enslaved black people were excluded from the formal legal system. As adherence to formal law emerged in the 1830s, southern whites came to view the circuit courts as unreliable administrators of justice for the few enslaved blacks who did enter the legal system, due both to the manipulation of self-interested professional lawyers as well as the fact that under formal law, enslaved defendants were provided with at least the appearance of due process. Even the formality of the legal process for enslaved blacks was perceived as threatening the white community's ability to dispense its own brand of racial justice.

While this growing distrust in the formal legal system remains the constant narrative thread throughout Waldrep's study, the Civil War emerges as a transitional moment. In Chapter Four, Waldrep maintains that during the Civil War, white Warren County residents, previously divided by class, gender, ethnicity, and politics, began to unite in the face of turmoil: a time when the "invasion" of Union troops unleashed havoc and spurred the desire for protection against what was interpreted as black anarchy. At times, white women seem central to this tale, For instance, Waldrep states that their demands for protection from white men and soldiers against supposedly "violent" blacks helped to transform white legal culture in Vicksburg. Since the protection of white womanhood emerged as a major justification for vigilante violence in the late 19th century, maybe Waldrep could have spent a little more time on this point. Moreover, after this chapter, women tend to appear incidentally or anecdotally.

Chapters 5-7 chronicle white Mississippians' varied attempts to reorder a society without slavery. While before the Civil War, whites suspected the courts' ability to maintain racial discipline, after the war and during Reconstruction, whites turned to the formal law to control freed blacks. This shift in how whites sought to use the law created a quandary: the possibility (even if remote) for freed black people to secure civil rights and legal justice, which was both detestable and unacceptable among most whites in postbellum Mississippi. The passage of the Mississippi Black Codes and the creation of a county court system or "Freedmen s Courts," both of which restricted the liberties of African Americans and sought to discipline them through formal law, also unintentionally gave blacks limited access to the "rule of law."

Legal scholars and historians have viewed the Black Codes as an infringement on the rights of African Americans and as a throwback to the days of slavery, in fact neo-slavery. Offering an unconventional read, Waldrep challenges this presumption by examining the beliefs of white Mississippians. For them, the codes did not represent a return to a previous state of servitude. They saw the Black Codes as providing black people with potential protections non-existent before the Civil War, and it was precisely this access to formal law (alongside the 14th and 15th amendments and Republican rule) which threatened the "efficiency" of meting out justice. Examining Warren County's post-war county court cases, Waldrep documents that whites, especially those in debt, also faced prosecution in county courts. Unenthusiastic about paying taxes to replace previously free extralegal racial justice with a costly court system that also entangled them, discontented white Mississippians responded by drawing on community-based va lue systems that privileged the "people's law." After 1873, hostility toward constitutionalism, an anti-Republican sentiment, and the passage of Mississippi's civil rights law finally united whites who felt that the election of blacks imperiled total white community power and that black aspirations could no longer be circumscribed. By 1874, whites had chosen to "rescue" the criminal justice and political systems from black people by resorting to riots, illegal searches, threats, and physical violence.

While primarily examining white legal culture and the roots of postbellum white mob law, the author also explores black southerners' political aspirations and factionalism and examines (though less persuasively) their use of the law as a way to unveil their world-view. With regard to citizenship, Waldrep argues, that blacks held similar ideals as their white counterparts: They were traditionally American, holding on to "conventional symbols of American political culture." Black people may have used the flag and the Declaration of Independence to legitimize their right to citizenship, but their alternative visions of racial egalitarianism and their desires for personal autonomy and self-definition in a society that denied their humanity and vigorously sought to withhold racial equality complicate this comparison.

Nevertheless, Waldrep's study adds a legal and community angle to the current historical literature that has explored more generally southern honor, vengeance, justice, and lynch law from social, economic, and psychological perspectives. The Roots of Disorder documents how whites in Mississippi made a conscious choice to turn to folk violence (not an unthinking one) based on decades of distrust in formal law. This study also exhibits the power myths have in shaping people's behaviors, particularly the myth of constitutionalism or "higher law" as immutable and blind even with evidence to the contrary. Neither freed black people's access to the rules of law nor their garnering of civil rights shielded them from white terrorism, discrimination, exclusion, or biased judicial outcomes. Finally, this book left this reader pondering the historical legacy and elasticity of such community mores that fixed black people's place and continue to devalue black life in American society while simultaneously claiming that ju stice is being served.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Williams, Rhonda Y.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2000
Words:1217
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