Friday, December 14, 2007

Chain Gang

It's oddly difficult to get information about the chain gang system that existed in the South until the 1950s and 60s. There are a few famous exposes, plus the pop culture images of "I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang," or "The Defiant Ones," or "Cool Hand Luke." There are an awful lot of white faces in these movies.

I was in our back yard in Tennessee sometime in the mid-50s when I saw a work gang in leg irons working on Emory Drive across the vacant lot that abutted our back yard. There were no white faces in that crowd.

The convict labor system was the way that southern states kept their roads repaired for most of the first half of the 20th Century. I've seen claims that the chain gangs were integrated, despite a fully segregated prison system, but I'm bound to wonder how much of that integrated chain gang image came from ignorance and poetic license. There was no mystery about how the prison labor system worked: whenever a road contractor needed labor, the local constabulary rounded up all the "vagrants" in the area, and vagrants were almost invariably black. Putting a white man in a largely black work gang would have been considered appalling.

Perhaps the gangs that were made up of prison inmates, rather than local "pick up" labor were different, but again, how and why would there be a mixing of populations that were not even in the same prisons? The logistics alone make the idea dubious; it would have been a lot like "forced busing," wouldn't it?

As for the pop culture images, there's no question about the dynamic at work there. There would have been no audiences for a film that featured only black characters, whereas adding black men to the mix either allows a statement about racial issues, or it emphasizes the degradation of the main (white) character.

In any case, I've just spent some time on Google Images, looking for a photo of a real chain gang with both black and white men in it, and I couldn't find any. I never saw one in real life, either.

The movie, "I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang," was based on a book, I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang. The State of Georgia banned the movie. I don't think they did it because it showed chain gangs; I think they banned it because it showed one that was integrated.


black dog barking said...

Once in a while emergency levee maintenance became a high priority of local government. Piling up sandbags in the face of a swelling river was a low-skill labor-intensive activity — perfect fit if you had an underclass of citizenry laying about blues-ifying. And if there was a temporary shortage of bags to fill with sand:

The author cites a 1912 New York Times article that illustrates the serf-like conditions faced by blacks in Mississippi. The Times reported that an engineer overseeing work on a levee threatened by high water ran out of sandbags and “ordered...several hundred lie down on top of the levee and as close together as possible. The black men obeyed, and although spray frequently dashed over them, they prevented the overflow that might have developed into an ugly crevasse. For an hour and a half this lasted, until the additional sandbags arrived” (p. 131).

Other movie chain gangs — O Brother Where Art Thou? and Blazing Saddles.

[the railway crew discover quicksand up ahead, and one of them offers to ride up ahead to check it out]
Taggart: Horses? We can't afford to lose no horses. Send over a couple o' niggers.

James Killus said...

I wish I could say that I'm surprized by this.

frankly said...

Was just watching "Oh Brother" and had the same thought that there was no way they would 'degrade' a white man, even a criminal, by chaining him to a black man and make them work side-by-side.

In their sick little minds I am sure this made sense to them. But the chain-gangs were slavery by another name.