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 ...
For just $19.95 a year, get access to new issues and decades' worth of archives on our site.
Print + Online
For $35 a year, get new issues delivered to your door and access to our full online archives.