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DIXIE BE DAMNED! Read an excerpt!

Posted on May 15th, 2015 in AK Book Excerpts, AK News

Dixie Be Damned: 300 Years of Insurrection in the American South is here!. One of the most exciting things about this book is how well it combines solid (and largely unknown) history with both damn good storytelling and a radical analysis that keeps the contemporary relevance of those stories in continual focus.

Here’s a little taste:

The Stockade Stood Burning:
Rebellion and the convict lease in Tennessee’s Coalfields

On the night of July 14, 1891, in eastern Tennessee, a band of about one hundred armed coal miners and local citizens marched on a newly built prison stockade owned by the Tennessee Coal Mining Company. The miners and their allies compelled the guards to release the forty inmates imprisoned there, put them on a train, and sent them to Knoxville. Without firing a shot, the miners disappeared back into the darkness.[1] Over the next thirteen months, the workers would repeat this scene over and over, eventually torching company property, looting company stores, and aiding the prisoners’ escapes. The miners were rebelling against the use of convict labor in Tennessee mines, which was being used to cut company costs and disastrously undermine the employment prospects and solidarity of free laborers. In the words of the president of the Tennessee Coal and Iron Company, “We were right in calculating that the free laborers would be loath to enter upon strikes when they saw that the company was amply provided with convict labor.”[2] But, as David Oshinsky writes in his book about the development of early southern prison systems:

Something happened in Tennessee, something almost unimaginable to the mine owners and politicians of that State. When the companies tried to intimidate their workers by bringing in convict labor to take over their jobs, the workers responded by storming the stockades, freeing the prisoners, and loading them onto freight trains bound for Nashville and Knoxville and places far away.

What began as an isolated protest in the company town of Coal Creek spread quickly across the Cumberlands to engulf most of eastern Tennessee. Thousands of miners took part in these uprisings, and thousands of armed State guardsmen were sent to face them down. The Tennessee convict war was one of the largest insurrections in American working-class history. And yet, unfolding at exactly the same time as the more publicized labor wars in Homestead, Pennsylvania, and Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, it was largely ignored.[3]

At a time when the post–Civil War South was trying to reinvent its economy, penal institutions, and racial caste system, the actions of the miners and their allies, combined with the resistance of convicts, created a perfect storm. Within a couple of years of the rebellion’s beginning, it was clear that the brutal system of convict leasing, by which state and county prisoners were literally sold off to private railroad and coal companies, had become totally unsustainable. Again and again, all across eastern and mid-Tennessee, miners released prisoners and burned company property to the ground. The costs of militiamen needed to guard the prisoners, along with the sabotage, work slow-downs, and rebellions by the convicts, made the system cost-prohibitive both to the state and coal companies. By December 31, 1895, Tennessee became the first state in the South to abolish the tremendously lucrative convict lease.

The convict wars symbolized the continually violent transition of chattel to wage slavery in the South, in terms of both the southern states’ attempts to industrialize as well as in the violent reactions of a newly industrialized proletariat to such efforts. Miners’ participation in this insurrection also catalyzed a change in the thinking of many poor whites, who went from using forms of rhetoric traditional to a Jeffersonian Republic and commonwealth to those of class war. As shown by both the wildcats of the 1960s and ’70s and the modern resistance to mountaintop removal mining, an uneasy combination of these different modes of thinking still remains in Appalachia to this day, creating the potential for movements that are at once quintessentially American yet simultaneously radical, violent, and autonomous in nature.

The convict lease sought to preserve the benefits of enslaved Black labor in the “New South.” This insurrection can therefore be seen as an indirect assault by white and Black miners upon older notions of white identity and loyalty to the racial caste system. Though this form of race treason never became more than a secondary factor in the miners’ economic self-defense, it would be wrong not to consider the meanings of such a self-interested racial solidarity, particularly at a time when the racist prison-industrial complex has now grown to such gargantuan proportions, and neoliberalism has eliminated so many of the industrial manufacturing jobs once occupied by white workers. For those of us interested in kindling future insurrections, there are many things worth considering in the convict wars.

1 Karin A. Shapiro, A New South Rebellion: The Battle Against Convict Labor in the Tennessee Coalfields, 1871–1896 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 79–81.
2 Ibid., 45.
3 David Oshinsky, Worse Than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice (New York: Free Press, 1996), 81–82.

[Get your copy here.]