David Oshinsky's history of "convict labor" in the Reconstruction-era American South bears the title Worse Than Slavery. The title itself raises questions about the role played by moralistic discourse in historiography, and what purpose it serves. Oshinsky certainly paints a grim picture of the systematic use of African-American prisoners at Parchman Farm -- the focus of his study -- and throughout the South after the Civil War. I would like to examine the system that Oshinsky describes, while incidentally paying attention to the rhetoric he employs in doing so. But ultimately I wish to call attention to, and question, the validity of Oshinsky's title. The title is provocative, and therefore can only be termed responsible historiography if indeed his purpose is to provoke further questions. Chief among these must be the question of what it actually means to declare that what he describes in the book is, indeed, worse than slavery.
Oshinsky begins his account by describing the condition of the South in the period immediately following the Civil War. His preliminary account of the state of Mississippi is particularly grim, and describes a situation of tremendous calamity, seemingly verging upon anarchy:
More than a third of Mississippi's 78,000 soldiers were killed in battle or died from disease. And more than half of the survivors brought home a lasting disability of war. Visitors to the state were astonished by the broken bodies they saw at every gathering, in every town square. Mississippi resembled a giant hospital ward, a land of missing arms and legs. In 1866, one-fifth of the state budget went for the purchase of artificial limbs. Few could escape the consequences of this war. Mississippi was bankrupt. Its commerce and transportation had collapsed. The railroads and levees lay in ruins. Local governments barely functioned. (12)
In some sense, Oshinsky clearly wishes to paint an accurate picture of the sort of society in which the system of convict labor which he outlines could even arise. But that situation is one in which the term "society" hardly seems accurate or appropriate. Yet Oshinsky's argument is one in which a tremendously unjust and inhumane system of labor would be established in the wake of a near-total societal devastation -- replacing a system of labor which was in itself tremendously unjust and inhumane. It might perhaps be more shocking to consider that any sort of system of labor might emerge from a society in this state of post-war devastation, but to a certain extent Oshinsky's argument is intended to show that, in some crucial way, the system of convict labor that would emerge at places like Parchman Farm represents a form of continuity with the chattel slavery of the old South. He makes this aspect of the argument explicit:
Convict leasing would also serve a cultural need by strengthening the walls of white supremacy as the South moved from an era of racial bondage to one of racial caste. In a region where dark skin and forced labor went hand in hand, leasing would become a functional replacement for slavery, a human bridge between the Old South and the New. (57)
The perceived continuity here is, in Oshinsky's argument, the continuity of racism. "Racial bondage" will be replaced by "racial caste," and the system of convict leasing (declared in the title to be worse than slavery) emerges as a "functional replacement for slavery." But the difficulty here is separating out the fact of racism, which Oshinsky posits as the central fact of the convict leasing system, from the larger set of facts of a society in upheaval. The fact of emancipation had suddenly created a new population of free individuals, but it is worth reminding ourselves that (in Isaiah Berlin's famous phrase) "liberty is liberty, not equality or fairness or justice or culture or human happiness or a quiet conscience." The last of these might indeed be crucial to understanding the dynamic here, although Oshinsky is not particularly interested in psychological history. Psychological history, however, seems to be what is needed in explaining why a particular social system would emerge: certainly one aspect of the unquiet conscience of a former slaveholding society in transition to one in which slavery is abolished must, necessarily, be the fear of potential retribution. To some extent, this can be understood in Oshinsky's account of the Meridian riot of 1871, site of the worst violence perpetrated by the Ku Klux Klan:
As Meridian's black population expanded in the late 1860s, tensions increased between local Republicans, who ran the town government, and local vigilantes, who vowed to bring it down. Both groups formed their own militias; both held emotional rallies and parades. In 1870, two black county supervisors were assassinated. An explosion seemed inevitable. It came in the spring of 1871, at the trial of three blacks charged with inciting arson in the town. Almost everyone came to the courtroom well armed, as Mississippians had been doing for years. This time shots rang out, killing the white Republican judge and several black spectators. The crowd surged forward, chasing down one defendant, whose body they riddled with bullets, and hurling another from the roof. ("When this failed to kill him," a witness reported, "his throat was cut.") For the next three days, local Klansmen rampaged through Meridian, murdering "all the leading colored men of the town with one or two exceptions." Despite frantic pleas for help, federal troops in Mississippi did not arrive in time. When the slaughter finally ended, more than twenty-five blacks were dead. So, too, was Republican rule in this hill country town. The Meridian riot demonstrated that the black community -- poorly armed, economically dependent, and new to freedom -- could not effectively resist white violence without federal help. And it showed that such help might be lacking at the very moment it was needed most. By 1871, Northern sympathy for the freedman's troubles had begun to wane. Military occupation was simply not working in the South; even General Sherman, the U.S. Army commander, despaired of propping up weak and provocative state governments with more federal troops. As black Meridian buried its dead that spring, the failure of Reconstruction was clear. The freedman stood dangerously alone. (27-8)
What is being described here is what, in the vocabulary of 2012, would be termed a "failed state." It is, to be sure, a failed state under military occupation -- but the question here must be what such potentially insurrectionary conditions could amount to, a mere five or six years after the end of the massive and unsuccessful insurrectionary movement of the Confederacy. Obviously the activities of the Ku Klux Klan are repellent, but it is worth noting that the emergence of armed militia-type organizations seems to be a fairly regular occurrence in conditions which border on anarchy. Yet Oshinsky sidesteps the question of the trial which provoked the race riot in Meridian: if the town was being run by Republicans (from the party of Lincoln and Grant) then how was it that a white Republican judge was hearing a trial in which three black men were accused of "inciting arson"? This is where a greater interest in the psychological aspects of history might be welcome. On the one hand, it is not the case that every charge of incitement to public violence was wholly trumped up and fictional -- John Brown at Harpers Ferry would have been sufficient proof of that to the average Southerner. Moreover, if the grudge held by Southerners against the "radical" Republicans of the Reconstruction era was that they were imposing an alien authority on what had formerly been styled a sovereign state with its own peculiar institution of slavery, then why would this authority permit such a trial to occur? Oshinsky seems to be simplifying the motivations of white Southerners here, whereby racism becomes the entirety of their psychology, on the basis that the institutions that emerged in this time period were undeniably racist. But this could potentially be viewed as a subtler form of racism on Oshinsky's part, one which denies agency to the African-American population at the time. In point of fact, the Meridian riot was precipitated by the armed organization of black freedman, who had engaged in some form of mob violence -- but to raise this point would be to invite a pernicious casuistry whereby the motivations of rival militias are weighed, and that composed of freedmen is found to have a more just cause because it was not motivated by racism, or because it was deemed to be defensively composed in reaction to the Klan.
It is important to realize, in registering these reservations concerning Oshinsky's account, that they do not comprise any sort of justification for the Klan. Instead they are intended to problematize Oshinsky's account, and inquire if the emphasis placed on race and racism in understanding Reconstruction might not concede too much ground to the Klan's view of matters. A situation of military occupation in the wake of an enormously…