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Prison Industry History (4)…

This is the final article in this series (Oct 19-22, 2010).  The connections have been drawn between the reality we face today in gulag America to its foundation in convict leasing and prison industrialization in the post-bellum period (1865-77).  And is now meeting with a resurgence thru prison privateering…

Tennessee Coal Creek War

One of the central books in this discovery process is Worse Than Slavery…” by David M. Oshinsky (1997).  The South initiated the technique of criminalizing those they could, notably the former slaves in order to disenfranchise them from political power, dehumanize them in the popular culture, and to exploit their labor.  Over 100 years of Jim Crow helped create this perversion even in the midst of the struggle for democracy.

The South’s early example was not lost on the profiteers of Northern industry.  For a time, these corporatists even believed that they had a ready antidote to the ongoing struggle with the radicalization and unionizing of their respective workers.

Industrialists such as Henry Clay Frick in  Pittsburgh and Arthur Colyar in Tennessee (a Confederate legislator and industrialist) were set on using such convicts en masse to mine their coal.  Colyar once commented that their use of convict labor put a chill into free labor, “The free laborers would be loath to enter upon strikes when they saw the company was amply provided with convict labor.”

However, a major incident squelched their dreams of a complete dictatorship of capital over labor.  One of the largest insurrections in American working class history was called the Tennessee Coal Creek War (1891-92).

The coal companies had agreed to pay the state of Tennessee $100,000/yr for 600 convicts to mine their coal in an attempt to intimidate and replace the workers.  The workers stormed the stockades freeing the prisoners, loading them onto freight trains and freedom.

The media, notably the Hearst and Pulitzer publications, either ignored the event or depicted it in offensive tabloid style.  Rupert Murdoch and Fox News’s reactionary commentators didn’t spring full-blown from the ether; they had earlier templates.

The state of Tennessee used the state militia to enforce their agreement with the coal companies.  However, with persistent resistance by the free miners, Tennessee eventually saw the cost of that venture.  The state legislature abolished convict leasing in 1896 and created their own prison and forced-mining facility (Brushy Mountain State Prison).  That prison produced coal for the state of Tennessee right up until 2009.

The other states eventually turned to developing their own industries and plantations.  Ironically, as a result of all this quasi-slave labor for private profiteering, the free-worker market in the South was further repressed helping to spread more long-term impoverishment.

As for the plight of the foremost victims of this process–and as with victims everywhere, being unable to turn on their tormentors and having nowhere else to turn their aggressions–they inevitably turned inward upon themselves and each other.

Abused individuals are psychological examples; abused groups are sociological ones.  For pathology, it is understood that both self-victimization and aggressive external blaming of “others” are the extreme results.

In a 1937 study done by psychologist John Dollard and reported in his Caste and Class in a Southern Town, he asks a young black girl being led away in chains to a prison plantations for a 2-yr term, what she thought of her predicament.

She smiled broadly and said, “It ain’t no diffrunce, white folks.  They gonna make me work wherever I is.”

And in a report from a black man in much the same situation, the psychologist asked, “Why do you work hard all week long and then get drunk and throw your money away and have a scrap and get put in jail?  Why do you do that?”

The man replied, “Boss, has you ever been a nigger on Saturday night?”

Conservatives would laugh and no doubt point to the foolishness, and that in the same circumstances they would behave differently.  But then that disciplined mythology and they’re lack of social consciousness is a large part of what defines them as conservatives. They are themselves the inside-out product of the same forces.

It reminds me of those who yearn for “the good old days,” and the times when he-men depended solely on themselves: Myths.  Without the social infrastructure of society and the creation of public-financed health, education and technology, their chances of even making it to puberty would have been slim to none.

At the very least, we learn our own history, learn what is prelude to this reality, or that reactionary cycle will continue.

               Dr. Publico

Category: JimCrow, OshinskyDavidM
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