Chain Gang Blues

Chain Gang Blues

In the midst of the Great Depression the American public was treated to a sudden outpouring of revelations about the horrors of the South’s most notorious penal institution, the chain gang. Even today, many people know the Warner Brothers 1932 hit film I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang starring Paul Muni. This Hollywood rendition of Robert E. Burns’s serialized true adventure story I am a Fugitive from the Georgia Chain Gang! (1932), cast instant national disgrace upon Georgia’s penal system and made Burns a popular hero, a white everyman struggling against bureaucratic indifference and state-sanctioned cruelty.

Burns’s story attained mass cultural appeal, but the depression-era left produced its own exposés of southern “justice” that achieved wide circulation as well. These accounts focused more appropriately on the plight of African-American prisoners, who made up the vast majority of those sent to the chain gang for petty crimes. In 1932 radical investigative reporter John Spivak talked his way into Georgia’s convict camps, and then published a thinly fictionalized proletarian novel about the chain gang entitled Georgia Nigger. Spivak’s “novel” came replete with photographs documenting the shocking tortures he had observed, and the book was serialized by the Communist party in the Daily Worker. By the midthirties the International Labor Defense (ILD) pledged itself to defend anyone who escaped from a southern chain gang, white or black. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People made common cause with the ILD when it successfully defended an escaped African-American convict, Jesse Crawford, against extradition to Georgia.

...

Lima