Global Trade & Local Oppression from the Coal Creek Wars to the ‘Debacle in Chattanooga’
With just a modicum of support, a much longer and more thorough examination of this vicious, bloody piece from Dixie’s past would be possible. That said, today’s topic has remained a little explored and less discussed chapter in the reality that has brought forth the present moment in the United States, with inequality’s skyrocketing manifestation and a festering, suppurating poison therefrom ready to explode from the wounds and pain that common people feel every day in their lives.
Most of the sources for this story are in newspaper and labor and history archives. A handful of books, as well as a few dozen journal articles and such, deal with the particular events discussed here. Karen Shapiro’s 1998 monograph is particularly noteworthy in this regard.
A New South Rebellion: the Battle Against Convict Labor in the Tennessee Coal Fields, 1871-1896 offers crucial contextualization for comprehending this essay. For example, it shows that the events of the 1890’s capped a quarter century of struggle that in turn extended from Reconstruction and the military occupation of the South to the heyday of ‘redemption,’ with the Dixiecrats again firmly in control.
‘Below the fold,’ a few pages hence, many more citations appear, leading to further source-materials for readers to contemplate. At that juncture, folks may explore a wide variety of additional evidence that is accessible online, both about the ‘Coal Creek War’ itself and about the history and political economy of peonage, prison labor, and other issues inevitably intertwined with that brutal struggle.
WHAT TOOK PLACE
At the end of the Civil War, revolutionary changes took place throughout the former slave states. From Eastern Kentucky South through Tennessee and Southwest Virginia and into Northeast and North Central Alabama, the nature of this transformation led to the creation of one of Earth’s most productive and profitable mineral and manufacturing regions.
A ‘sketch’ from a popular weekly magazine summed up all of this. “Before the war there were a few small furnaces in this now busy district overlooked by Chattanooga’s mountain… . The first coke furnace was established at Rockwood in 1868 with Northern capital on Southern credit. … [by]members of the wide-awake commercial class. …The Chattanooga District, so called, is in the centre of a region of iron ores and coking coals of 150 miles in diameter.”
The author continues by sighing at the unfortunate “poverty of the planters,” without noting that their penury had resulted from their primary property’s becoming a group of wage earners. These stalwarts, former slaves, he characterizes in this way: “the shiftlessness of the Negro” led planters “to favor cotton as the easiest crop to handle on shares and borrow money upon,” but that ‘stern oversight’ could make a profit from Blacks in the mines and factories. That many of these workers ended up being prisoners was just a fact of nature.
From a liberal, or Constitutionalist point of view, the industrial relations characteristic of these developments were ‘unfortunate.’ From a more radical perspective, these interactions between labor and capital, especially in extractive pursuits, were ‘par for the course.’
In any case, employers sought to cheat the men who mined coal by systematically paying for less tonnage than workers actually produced. Furthermore, rather than paying in cash—U.S. currency—as required by law, almost all owners—at least on occasion—paid in scrip, spendable only, or primarily, at high-priced, low quality company outlets. “Saint Peter don’t you call me, ‘cause I can’t go,” sang Tennessee Ernie Ford in one of the best selling singles in the history of recorded sound, “I owe my soul to the company store.”
Wage earners resisted these inequities and racketeering behaviors. They demanded their due. But, for the most part, especially after the ‘grand compromise’ of 1876, which spelled the end of Reconstruction and Federal oversight, employers acted with impunity. And if workers threatened to organize, as they did again and again in Tennessee, an uptick in misdemeanors always promised a ready supply of prisoners on whom to practice ‘stern oversight.’
One hundred twenty-three years ago—July, 1891—from Chattanooga to Knoxville and Westward into Central Tennessee, union and unorganized miners joined hands with each other and extended their hands to prisoners who were dying in droves to keep the lid on coal-mining unions and workers’ rights. Then, like now, the Prison Industrial Complex benefited some of the largest corporate forces, by supplying a cheap and disposable labor force.
The primary contractor in the Tennessee Convict Lease system was the Tennessee Coal, Iron, & Railroad Company. The largest employer in the South, one of the top industrial firms in the nation, capitalized from New York and Europe, TCI in 1907 merged with United States Steel interests, a few years after J.P. Morgan’s firm had gobbled up the Carnegie interests, to form the largest industrial company on earth. Other outfits, mostly smaller and marginal, also employed prison-labor—often ‘sublet’ from TCI, but convict-leasing’s origins and primary beneficiaries were the gargantuan companies at the pinnacle of the industrial pyramid.
The United Mine Workers of America, the first union to insist that Whites and Blacks had to join the same organizations to fight for their rights as workers, was the primary labor nexus of leadership in the region. The Knights of Labor, with its secret codes and handshakes and radical rambunctiousness, also played a major part. Many workers joined these organizations in practice, even if they were not dues paying members.
One interesting aspect of this upheaval was that the miners were plus-or-minus ninety per cent White and the prisoners were almost one hundred per cent Black. Another fascinating piece of this story was that the union and unorganized colliers, with allies from community businesses and local agriculture, repeatedly confronted the militias assigned to oversee the prison-mines, and forced the release of the Black men incarcerated their. The victorious coal miners in such cases packed the jailed workers off to the State capitol or to Knoxville in the company of their keepers.
Throughout these shows of cohesion and strength, however, the States’ newspapers almost without exception, and churches and other public councils generally, took issue with the miners, calling them too radical, labeling them as out of the bounds of decency. Though this did not forestall the combatants from continuing to demand basic justice, it did create an environment in which their self-defense and courageous agency appeared to approximate wild-eyed violence and mean-spirited viciousness.
No matter that media and social leaders condemned them, however, beginning October 31, 1891, the up-in-arms miners took things a step further. They had become irretrievably disenchanted with established norms and approaches when Governor John Buchanan, a Farmer-Labor-Alliance Democrat, whom they played a big role in electing, not only failed to find a way to end convict leasing but also led some of the militia units to East Tennessee to “restore order.”
Thus, in mid-Autumn, the rebellion amped up several notches. Over and over again, miners and their cohorts burned down, dismantled, or otherwise destroyed the mining stockades in which these newly-enslaved ‘prisoners’ worked. The protesters then, as before, sent the inmates and their disarmed guards off to Nashville or Knoxville. In several cases, particularly in the last stages of this uprising, the miners set their incarcerated replacements free, some of whom joined this employees’ rebellion rather than fleeing.
Throughout this fight, miners and their allies were aware of the battles in Pennsylvania, the so-called Homestead strike, which was actually a militarized lockout. The miners in Tennessee explicitly recognized a solidarity that went beyond their own interests and communities, even as the defeat of the working-class further North was sobering and worrisome.
For over a year after July, 1891, when large scale direct action began in earnest, the mining district of Tennessee became even more an armed camp than it had already been, off and on, since the end of Reconstruction. A state of something like warfare prevailed. Not until a year or so prior to Tennessee’s ending the convict lease in 1896—the first deep-South State to do so—did outbursts taper off and end altogether in the deep hollows of the Cumberlands, the Smokies, and the Blue Ridge.
WHY THIS HAPPENED AS IT DID
As noted at the outset, a much richer and more detailed telling of this tale would occur if the budget for the telling were a bit more. Nevertheless, various central threads run quite visibly through the complex skeins of history here.
In the first place, the conquest of the region in the Civil War evinced a complexity that is all too easy to overlook. For example, many Union military leaders ended up being akin to advance scouts for Northern and foreign—especially British—capital.
Wealthy Ohioans or well-heeled residents of Illinois or other States raised regiments to carry the fight to the Confederacy and then ended up funneling investment to Southern industry even as controlling interest remained outside the region. TCI, Sloss, and Republic Steel all illustrated this pattern. Once they established themselves, moreover, these capitalists elected to elevate the former planters and upper crust of the ante-bellum period to serve as their henchmen and junior partners.
This choice of ‘dance partners,’ as it were, necessitated a ‘disciplining’ of a labor force that had theretofore acted as agricultural laborers almost exclusively. And despite occasionally heroic “part(s) which Black folk played in the attempt to reconstruct democracy in America,” at no point did the denizens of conquest favor Black leaders or other champions of social equality with any imprimatur of general industrial or other economic leadership.
In fact, the rough-and-tumble debates that regulated slavery’s end, especially as to the Thirteenth Amendment, left open the opportunity to reinstitutionalize involuntary servitude. “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted,” would any longer be acceptable. But ‘due conviction’ was easy enough to manufacture, and the entire system of peonage flowed from this, in the form of criminalized ‘breach-of-contract’.
Thus, the ‘New South’ clung to ancient forms of oppression even as it idealized a grand upsurge of money and change and all the marvels of modernity. And, until the ‘New Deal’ and the TVA came on the scene, Tennessee and the ‘Southern Ruhr’ displayed a bizarre mixture of apartheid and free labor, a combination of puppeteer mob-rule and all the promises of ‘freedom and democracy.’ In such a realm, the Coal Creek Wars were at once a wakeup call and a desperate plea for relief.
A final aspect of this concatenation of causation emerges quite clearly from a contemporary account. A Harper’s Weekly book of ‘Southern Sketches’ includes a chapter on the coal and iron district. Its 1895 summation is instructive.
“The whole coal and iron region suffered severely after the Baring failure in London. During three years, the price of iron fell from $12, $14.50, and $15 a ton down to $8.50 or $7.75, by reason of excessive overproduction. Only the few companies that relied on convict labor were able to make both ends meet at those prices.”
Of course, the affable correspondent might have noted that all the largest producers of iron and steel relied on convict-mined coal, except for those that had been driven to the wall by the miners of Tennessee.
Dear Julian Ralph, traveling through the entire region for two years, goes on to lament the colonial pattern. The region provides the cheapest and highest quality raw metal, but not a single piece of hardware or stove plate comes from hometown factories.
In an aside, he continues, “The Negro’s brawn and muscle, his cheap labor, and his acquaintance and characteristic contentment with his surroundings are considered as a large element in the prospective growth of Southern coal and iron industries.” Yet, though the larger operators avail themselves of ‘contented prisoners,’ most of the blast-furnaces and mines, relatively small and dependent on their next run’s selling at a profit, strangle in the downturns.
Thus, global meltdowns—like the depression of 1857 that foreshadowed Civil War; like the depression of 1896 that elicited the Spanish-American war; like the panic of 1907 that set the stage for a horrific conflict seven years later; like the ‘Great Depression’ that only yielded to another mass annihilation—also reached down into the homes and workshops of Southern Appalachia, where a ‘Coal Creek War’ was a different kettle of fish.
Here, the working people weren’t at each other’s throats; they didn’t butcher other workers in the name of patriotism. They stood up for themselves, Black and White, and demanded what the law supposedly required, payment for the work that they delivered and real money for their wages. And they burned down the prisons that ended up enslaving all of them.
WHAT COAL CREEK MEANT IN THE EARLY 1890’S
Nothing so threatened the systems of profit and capital accumulation in the Post-Bellum South as the prospect of a union among White and Black workers. The miners clearly had neither sufficient organization nor political strength summarily to overthrow the convict lease; its continuance till the end of the contract term in 1896 proves that.
Nevertheless, the militancy and solidarity of the working people of Tennessee, even if this practical unity did not extend to a social compact or a political transformation, did crush the possibility of a convict lease system’s continuing in the State. And, just possibly, this phalanx of workers both Black and White and unions may have contributed to the effective diminution of much of the metals and minerals industry in Tennessee. Whatever the case may be, Alabama, in the Birmingham District, became the behemoth, where convict leasing continued more or less untrammeled until the late 1920’s.
The lack of commitment to social equality, and the inability to produce a political milieu in which working people’s rights could have equal status with questions of color, did mean that Jim Crow would rise, that populism would fail, and any tingeing of economic relations with democracy would be out of any realistic political orbit. Tennessee for a moment seemed to rise from the Southern mire, only to sink back into the muck. Mountain air might be salubrious, yet it was not miraculous.
Therefore, the insurrectionary character of these events notwithstanding, they would have no immediate effect in terms of reducing the reactionary and backward nature of Southern society. Lynch mobs still arose in Tennessee. The primacy of private property and wealth continued to reign. The upshot of this was a two-tier society in which White and Black, rich and poor, lived according to different standards and codes.
Still, in the memories of the people who were present during the Coal Creek War, and in the stories that their grandchildren recall to this day, these events have some resonance in terms of an existence more equitable and just, in which labor rights are as important as profit, in which one’s skin color is less important than one’s willingness to stand with fellow working people.
HOW THESE LONG-AGO EVENTS MIGHT INSTRUCT WORKERS TODAY
The past has its own integrity. No one, except at great peril, can view the events of yesteryear through the eyes of the present moment. The risk emanates from the fact that one cannot plot a course forward when the road from whence we’ve come is invisible, obscured by false views that seem safe or satisfactory somehow, but have little to do with either the actualities or sensibilities that made up their true unfolding.
At the same time that this is true—we must respect that what happened occurred for reasons that have little or nothing to do with our hopes and fears—our job is to search for patterns that show the real links that always connect past and present, in the same way that our parents’ letters and pictures and other material documentation of their lives will always illuminate the evolution of the lives of their children, which is to say all of us.
One key element that runs bright and clear from the nineteenth century to the present moment is the choice by those in command to use imprisonment in relation to labor and production. Current commentaries speak of an “incarceration nation,” of a “carceral State” that cannot put enough people in for-profit repositories that auction off their labor to corporations hungry for higher profits and wages that approach zero.
Another central aspect of both the earlier and the contemporary process is the way that political forms, supposedly democratic, consistently betrayed the wants and needs of the people purportedly in charge of such electoral arenas. Thus, in similar fashion as Governor Buchanan, who ignored the pleas of those who made his election possible, Tennessee’s crop of ruling polticos have shot down Volkswagen and others of their own constituencies that wanted to construct a different model of workplace relations. ‘We may have wooed you in the past, but to hell with you now, if you dare to consider unionization.’
A third crucial component of this instructional nexus lies in the role of media and communication. Just as without noticeable exception, the news outlets of the late nineteenth century lined up behind TCI in condemning the miners, so too TV and radio and print media overwhelmingly attacked the UAW’s recent organizing effort as if the devil himself were about to take up residence at the heart of ‘Volunteer’ country.
Finally, what befell the miners and prisoners of East Tennessee—which is to say a return from the edges of uplift and change to the enervation and stress of the status quo ante—must be a dynamic that persists in our own lives, unless we can overcome the incapacities that disabled this powerful people’s movement from lasting and becoming a basis for real social transition. This is no small matter.
Hence, what many pundits are calling the ‘debacle’ in Chattanooga, where a union finally seemed likely to break through to represent Southern autoworkers, in at least a few ways might be analogous to what transpired twelve decades ago in the same geographic location.
- Politicians who espoused populist sentiments, and the State that congratulated itself on its ‘American ways,’ subverted fairness and democracy in both time periods;
- Prisons, imprisonment, and prison labor—all reliant on a sharp division of Black and White, rich and poor, were somewhere near the heart of social dysfunction and economic inequity;
- Wealth and investment from far afield fought to eviscerate every movement for more democratic and collective forms;
- Media formed a one-sided wall of propaganda to inundate the workers themselves, and every social network that the people might call upon for help;
- The union leadership for the most part was far less radical than the people themselves;
- And those folks, despite their willingness to rise up in the most rebellious fashion imaginable, never could articulate a way of thinking about their lives and prospects that differed markedly from established values and tendencies.
Merely noticing such things, and then discussing them with an eye to future action, could help seed potential for basic transformation.
Of course, Tennessee at the beginning of the Twenty-first century also differs profoundly from the Tennessee that characterized the nineteenth century’s end. One cannot substitute Twitter for chewing tobacco, nor can a society in which women have rights and Hispanic immigrants are omnipresent possibly seem equivalent to a society in which women could not even own property and Mexico was a distant, conquered land. And the supportive role of VW, which backed the union’s plans, would have been tantamount to TCI’s voluntarily closing down the convict mines.
The point is not that the two unfolding situations are the same. The point is, however, that the former’s evolution has contributed to the latter’s parameters. In such an incontrovertible context of interconnected development and causation, finding out the connections, the similar dynamics, the ways that what was past continues to exist in the present, has to be something of real potential use in figuring out how to move forward.
What follows essentially looks at then and now. On the one hand, a particular slice of Earth’s beautiful places—full of mountains and waterfalls and forests resplendent with the second most abundant ecosystem on the planet—went through a social maelstrom in the past that, to say the least, goes markedly against the purported grain of ‘Southern character’—in terms of skin color and chauvinism, in terms of class solidarity, in terms of not rocking any boats. On the other hand, this same region, still beautiful if almost unimaginably developed and transformed on the surface, at once has a different feel to it at the same time that some of the earlier patterns are also present, if one knows where and how to look.
These sections all proffer citations or links for readers to consider. Not even the merest fraction-of-a-fraction of the available literature in most cases, the leads given here definitely point the onlooker to a path. Following it, she can reach a more nuanced understanding; ambling along its byways, he can attain a richer awareness of contextual and conceptual underpinnings. Over time, this humble correspondent will return here, to update and pare, to add and modify. With luck, some of the observers of this process will do the same.
A Tiny Selection of Contemporary Documents That Establish Context
- The American Negro As a Dependent, Defective & Delinquent: This volume, by Charles H. McCord, horrifyingly hateful from the surface to its guts, is one of hundreds of such texts, a fundamental purpose of which was the inculcation of justifications for both White Supremacy and for denigrating citizens of African heritage.
- Dixie, or, Southern Scenes and Sketches: This lengthy set of dispatches from Julian Ralph, who contributed especially to Harper’s Weekly, contains a novelist’s eye for telling details and intriguing juxtaposition, ranging from the New England transplants in late-nineteenth century Florida to the Chattanooga District mines, in all of which the same viciously chauvinistic assumptions are resplendent about the Blacks whose labor is the primary engine for the region’s wealth.
- The Negro Wage Earner: Lorenzo Greene and Carter Woodson, who went on to become legendary as a political scientist and sociologist, authored this detailed, scholarly monograph supported by The Association for the Study of Negro Life & History: rich in both data and analysis, it lays the basis for understanding the nature of ‘divide-and-conquer’ schemes, the deeply rooted and ruinous practices of Jim Crow inequality and exploitation, the advances that Black workers had made, and more.
- The Marrow of Tradition: This novel, by Charles Chesnutt, developed out of the author’s chauvinistic take on one of the most interesting uprisings in U.S. history, when Wilmington, North Carolina—led by working class Blacks and Whites—seceded from the U.S. for a time, a kind of Paris-Commune in the Heart of the plantation districts.
Southern History Classics
- The Origins of the New South, 1877-1913: Comer Vann Woodward’s work reads like a novel and grips like a psychological thriller, covering the birth pangs of what Southerners now experience as everyday reality.
- The Emergence of the New South, 1913-1945: George Tindall’s even more densely than Woodward packs his tale of the defining militarism and skepticism, conformity and resistance, the world that we’ve inherited from grandparents in essence.
- A History of the South, 1607-1936: the freely available version of William Hesseltine’s classic provides a grounding in geography and social and economic relations that remains extremely useful.
- Black Reconstruction: an Essay Toward the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880—This is the ‘real deal,’ W.E.B. Du Bois’ masterful assessment of a bottom-up perspective on a key turning point in world history.
- Major Problems in the History of the American South: in two volumes, this series collects essential documents and many of the important schools of interpretation about the history of this region that in some senses controls the destiny of the U.S. and the planet.
- The Burden of Southern History: Project MUSE’s portal to C. Vann Woodward’s third edition makes aspects of the volume available to Project MUSE members; the work itself is a critical read.
- This list of classic Southern Nonfiction truly does have some of the key titles, from W.J. Cash to Richard Wright, via Lillian Smith and many others.
Coal Creek’s War
- This local web window contains countless clues and quotes and useful anecdotal and summary data.
- Another local voice, “the Tennessee History Guy,” discusses the importance of the events here and how established approaches often ignore or decontextualize them.
- Yet one more local voice, with images and ideas aplenty, lets folks see and feel what is what in the basics of this case.
- A local woman’s published novel about the story, The Coal Creek War: Another Fight for Freedom, also gives a rich sense of the on-the-ground meaning of these events.
- An article from the Oak Ridger introduces us to Barry Thacker, the number one grassroots expert on these happenings.
- Economic Populist – An additional local voice, informative and helpful, speaks to the insanity of for-profit prisons among Tennesseans, given what happened at Coal Creek.
- New South Rebellion: the Battle Against Convict Labor in Tennessee’s Coal Fields, 1871-1896—Karen Shapiro’s masterful book lets a reader see the many complexities and nuances of the whole period, without losing sight of how truly radical and potentially transformative the entire situation was.
- From jhu.edu – One of many excellent reviews of Shapiro’s book, Fink’s assessment is laudatory as it adds additional data and context; other items of this source are available on H-Net Reviews and through Left History.
- From Zinelibrary.info – A lovely, anarcho-syndicalist examination of the situation, entitled “The Stockade Stood Burning,” layers fact and analysis and various secondary sources with a nuanced understanding of the unfolding dynamics of the early 1890’s.
- from coalcreekaml.com – An excerpt from Fred Brown’s book on Tennessee historical markers, Marking Time, which provides interesting facts and background on the conflict.
The Thirteenth Amendment
- From UC Davis – This long law-review article, “Race, Rights, & the Thirteenth Amendment,” gives the background on the passage of the law that overturned slavery but let it come in again through the ‘exception clause’s’ back door.
- Another long law review analysis, “Peonage and Contractual Liberty,” posits that on at least a few occasions the federal courts were willing to invalidate clearly ‘enslaving’ local criminal statutes that proscribed breach-of-contract so as to provide convict labor.
- This 63 year old law review article represents one of the modern benchmarks in the study of the 13th Amendment, concluding that “Its history…has never lived up to its promise as the ‘grand yet simple declaration of the personal freedom of all of the human race within the jurisdiction of this government.“
- This Government Printing Office précis gives readers the briefest of overviews of the legislative history and interpretation of what ought to be one of the key developments in U.S. social and legal history.
- From neh.gov –This successful grant application shows what is possible when public media actually serves the public, proffering in the process an excellent explication of historical prison labor practices in the South after the Civil War.
- This Public Broadcasting System suggested college syllabus and study guide investigates “the economics of prison labor” from a historical perspective.
- From osu.edu – This honors thesis on the practice of debt-peonage contains both a wonderful literature review and plenty of data and analysis.
- A history thesis from Emory University, “The Long Shadow of Injustice” analyzes the past in terms of its effects on the present, as well as providing excellent source and data summaries.
- A Vanderbilt dissertation, “Bloody Breathitt: Power and Violence in the Mountain South,” examines a different but clearly closely related case of the confluence of coal, predation-for-profit, convict-labor, and rebellion.
- “Materialism and the Persistence of Race in the Jim Crow South” is a long prize lecture that studies much more than prison labor, but insodoing gives the broadest and arguably the clearest presentation about the issue.
- Alex Lichtenstein’s monograph, Twice the Work of Free Labor: the Political Economy of Convict Labor in the New South, is, given the continuities in labor relations that this and other volumes make clear, another essential read on the part of anyone who imagines organizing in the region successfully.
Southern Unions, Dixie Unionizing
- The Autobiography of Mother Jones: this digital edition from the University of Pennsylvania will make clear her work in Appalachia and the South.
- A Congressional Research Service report, this White Paper looks at the history and policy issues surrounding child labor in the U.S.
- Organizing in the Depression South: a Communist’s Memoir, would be required reading among contemporary organizers, in a rational world.
- This master’s thesis looks at the CIO’s “Operation Dixie” and its hopes and tactics and overall failures.
- “Searching for a Useable Past: Fifty Years of Writing Southern Labor History” is an address from three years ago at the Southern Labor Studies Association conference.
- Examiner article on Highlander This humble correspondent’s offering about the founding and early development of the Highlander Folk School, a lens for viewing Southern labor organizing that remains as critical as it is instructive.
- “The Early Years of Highlander Folk School…” looks at the progress that Miles Horton and others hoped to engender and the struggles that they encountered on the way.
- Highlander Center’s look at John Glen’s Highlander: No Ordinary School, examining the history of its labor education and other organizing and transformation modules.
CURRENT POLITICAL ECONOMY AND SOCIAL RELATIONS
Radical Critiques of the Prison Industrial Complex
- Angela Davis delivers her usual incisive analysis and practical orientation in Are Prisons Obsolete.
- A University of Minnesota dissertation, Fugitive Life primarily uses feminist thinking to analyze the rise of mass imprisonment, especially in terms of the impact on women of color.
- “Prisoners for Sale” makes a legal case, using the 13th Amendment, against for profit prisons that lease out their inmates’ labor.
- This Le Monde analysis digs into the political economy and profiteering that underlie the present U.S. incarceration paradigm.
- From sagepub.com – Another look at the “Political Economy of the Prison Industrial Complex,” this assessment posits a “Racialization of Crime and Punishment” in the current context.
- From publicadvocates.org –This White Paper clearly articulates a thesis connecting attacks on education to increased prison populations and escalating criminalization of everyday behavior.
- From cjcj.org – A condensation of a lengthy report entitled “Slavery in the Third Millennium,” which contends that current trends, if not opposed and arrested, will undermine every possibility for a society based on comity and grassroots power.
The Current Context of Organizing Southern Unions
- “How Can Labor Organize the South?” presents a brief overview of this critical question that was part of a forum earlier this month in North Carolina’s capitol, the heart of the least organized region of North America.
- A review of a recent Labor Notes publication, How to Jumpstart Your Union, both the article and the book tell the tale and recite the lessons that arise from the incredible turnaround in the Chicago Teachers Union, entailing a radical and community-centered organizational strategy.
- This issue of Workplace Visions presents insights and possibilities that arise from an examination of the Change-to-Win’s growth strategies in SEIU and elsewhere.
- “Why Labor Unions Can and Must Survive” is an older but insightful rallying cry from academia.
- An analysis that sees union opportunity in community coalition, this piece serves as a guide to successful strategic development.
- This Democratic Socialist of America portal includes many ways of looking at the necessity of coming up with a successful Southern strategy for unions.
Class & Color & Ideologies of Solidarity or Supremacy
- A Georgia State University law review article, “The Propriety and Constitutionality of Chain Gangs” argues forcefully that abusive racism and other dire problems will likely result from this practice.
- Die, Nigger, Die was a brief memoir by H. Rap Brown, who went on to organize against police-drug-dealer cooperation in Atlanta and end up in the SuperMax isolation unit for the murder of two policemen who had come to arrest him on a ‘failure-to-appear’ charge.
- The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which this site excerpts, remains essential reading for anyone who would understand and develop the capacity to organize in the context of a White Supremacist society.
- How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America, by Manning Marable, also continues to be extremely relevant to those who would organize and participate in empowerment and grassroots development, such as might be the case in a union of writers.
- Black Liberation/Red Scare looks at the life of Communist Party leader Ben Davis, who left the South to become a revolutionary; an explication of his experience makes an otherwise inchoate ‘racial’ analysis of the United States into a useful narrative.
- This book, by former Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and Black Panther founder, also contextualizes the prior-to-the-here-and-now experience of Black Americans, an essential task for making sense of the current moment.
Each posting in this topic area, “Blazing a Union Trail Through the Thickets of Time,” could easily encompass many volumes and thousands, even tens of thousands of citations and links. The huge range of artistic expression, music, literature, is almost entirely absent so far.
Readers, should they show up, could help ameliorate these missing pieces. They could fill in the blanks. They could fulfill the mandate of a ‘Solidarity Society’ by assisting in the process of teaching and learning together.
That’s one legacy of Coal Creek, which is now underwater and immediately adjacent to the Oak Ridge National Laboratories, where, just recently, three brave souls volunteered to enter the prisons in order to stand up for the elimination of the ecocidal madness that has come to typify the ‘rational world’ that once relied on leasing convicts to maximize profits and now just warehouses humans behind bars to keep them out of trouble. This vast panoply of interrelations, of place and social evolution, of political economy and history, of people’s striving for awareness even as the possibilities of consciousness seem ever elusive, all fits together somehow.
Our job is to seek to figure out how, and then act on these suppositions so as to live better together. What else is our common humanity about?