- Twice the Work of Free Labor The Political Economy of Convict Labor in the New South, and: One Dies, Get Another Convict Leasing in the American South, 1866-1928 (review)
- Southern Cultures
- The University of North Carolina Press
- Volume 4, Number 4, 1998
- pp. 92-95
- View Citation
- Additional Information
Twice the Work of Free Labor The Political Economy of Convict Labor in the New South By Alex Lichtenstein Verso, 1996 264 pp. Cloth, $65; paper, $19 One Dies, Get Another Convict Leasing in the American South, 1866-1928 By MatthewJ. Mancini University of South Carolina Press, 1 996 290 pp. Cloth, $34.95 Reviewed by Henry McKiven, associate professor at the University of South Alabama. His most recent publication is Iron andSteel Race, Class, and Community in Birmingham, Alabama, 18/4—1920. One of the most enduring images of die postCivil War South is the African American prisoner, bound in chains, working on the roads or at some other equally oppressive task. Through the print media, bad Hollywood films, and, more recendy, the actions of the state of Alabama, soudierners' treatment of criminals has become a defining characteristic of the region. Ask a nonsoutherner to give you a list ofdistinctiy southern traits and die chain gang is likely to show up, though few people ever get.beyond popular images ofan "American Siberia." These two studies attempt to separate stereotype from reality by analyzing the place of convict leasing in the evolution of the post-Civil War South's economy and its system of racial control. They take us beyond tales of terror and escapes from isolated camps run by overweight, tobacco-chewing, whip-wielding guards to reveal an institution that played a role in the rise ofthe New South. One book is a close study of the system in one state, while die odier is a broad overview of the system in most of the former Confederacy. The most interpretively sophisticated of die two studies is the one by Alex Lichtenstein. Most of Twice the Work ofFreeLabordeals with die convict lease system in Georgia, with the exception of a chapter on Alabama. Lichtenstein attempts to place his study in die context of an ongoing historiographical debate 92 Reviews about die continuity of institutions of race and class power in the South. It is his view that the convict lease represented an important part of an effective system of racial control that relied upon neither slaves nor freedmen. Influenced by studies of odier emancipations and the work of a number ofAmerican builders of the Prussian road, Lichtenstein argues that the South after the Civil War entered a transitional period during which it relied on varying degrees of labor repression while building a modern capitalist economy. Convict labor represented one end of a continuum, the unfree end, diat included restrictions on labor mobility in the rural South. This arrangement, he contends, satisfied planters' desire for labor and racial control, while offering industrialists a guaranteed source of labor: convicts. Lichtenstein's thesis is intriguing and, given his assumptions, is borne out by his impressive research. He successfully demonstrates that even though convicts were only a small proportion of Georgia's total work force and were inefficient workers, they did provide lessees the assurance ofa labor force and labor cost stability . He also documents die ways white authorities used the criminal justice system against African American men. If anyone doubted that convict leasing was directed primarily at the black community, Lichtenstein's work should conclusively remove those doubts. Finally, in die best chapter in the book, Lichtenstein argues persuasively that the "abolition" ofconvict leasing was only a transformation . States stopped leasing to private concerns to employ convicts in the building ofpublic roads. Lichtenstein is on solid ground when he explains how die convict lease system worked, but once he switches to placing die system into his larger interpretive framework, his arguments fall short. He clearly believes that the convict lease system was essential to the building of the New South and tendentiously restates his position throughout the book. Unfortunately his reasoning in reaching this conclusion is unconvincing. For example, in an effort to deflect the criticism that the proportion of convicts in Georgia's work force was not enough to justify his claims, Lichtenstein argues that because convicts produced bricks used to construct buildings in Adanta, we must conclude diat convicts were largely responsible for the building of the quintessential New South city. At another point he contends diat since convicts worked on...