Brutal treatment and criminal records awaited black activists who protested segregation laws in the Jim Crow South. Thousands of protesters, however, answered the call to “fill the jails” during the heyday of the black freedom movement in the 1950s and 1960s. Even though civil rights organizations encouraged activists to serve their sentences as a form of civil disobedience, and Freedom Riders have long asserted that their famed 1961 campaign was carried over into the infamous Parchman Farm, where hundreds of participants were sent after violating the transportation codes of Mississippi, this particular aspect of movement activity is usually given scant attention in other assessments of the civil rights movement. Zoe A. Colley’s fascinating Ain’t Scared of Your Jail: Arrest, Imprisonment, and the Civil Rights Movement helps explain this link by arguing that going to jail was an integral part of putting one’s body on the line in protests across the South, and that this experience helped build community among activists and intensify the impact of their use of nonviolence.
Colley’s extensive use of interviews with activists, as well as papers and letters from many private collections, allows her to construct a convincing account of how civil rights campaigns extended into jail cells across the South. She effectively traces the origins of the push to accept “jail-no-bail” through the sit-in movements of 1960, the Freedom Ride campaign and Albany movement of 1961, the Freedom Summer project of 1964, and the Black Power organizations of the late 1960s. Throughout, she effectively shows how activists considered serving jail time as a crucial part of their contributions [End Page 158] to the movement, as well as how these sentences rejuvenated their flagging spirits, thus allowing campaigns to continue. Colley does not ignore the brutalities of imprisonment—each chapter is, in fact, brimming with detail about the violence, sexual harassment, lack of shelter and amenities, poor food quality, and exposure to the elements that prisoners faced. But for the Freedom Riders, who were sent to Parchman Prison in droves once the campaign extended to Mississippi, turning the jails into sites of activism was crucial. Colley quotes C. T. Vivian as noting that “the feeling of people coming out of the jail was one that they had triumphed, that they had achieved” (p. 57). Jail sentences also helped Northern and white activists show their dedication to the fight, as displayed by Peter Milenburg’s assertion that “before I ever went to jail I longed for the experience out of curiosity and to put the official stamp on my involvement in the movement” (p. 88).
Colley readily admits that jail-ins did not ultimately help dismantle Jim Crow laws. She attributes this lack of success to the relatively small number of activists willing to go to jail, and to changing tactics which focused more on spadework that required activists to actually be present in local communities rather than sitting in cells. She does not, however, explain that, since jail-ins took place outside the public eye and the gaze of the media, they were unable to provoke the anger and support among outsiders on which nonviolent direct protest generally relies. This lack of attention to the contributions of mass media is odd, given that Colley herself details cases in which activists were forced to languish in cells until photographers surreptitiously captured and published their images, forcing local authorities to release them.
Civil rights activists’ experiences in jail cells may not have prompted the nationwide support and federal intervention that more public acts elicited, but Colley succeeds in showing how going to jail remained integral to the practice of nonviolent protest and in helping to reinforce ideals of community and moral righteousness among activists. Her book is a revealing portrait of activism that [End Page 159] almost always took place beyond the scope of the camera lens, and is all the more powerful for this unveiling.
Beth Fowler is a doctoral student and adjunct instructor at...