The South Isn’t Exceptional, the People Are: New Orleans and Prisoner Rights Activism

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Slave prison (Calabozo), New Orleans, Arnold Genthe photographer, between 1920 – 1926, Arnold Genthe Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

New Orleans, and the state of Louisiana more generally, are often held up as the worst examples of policing and criminal justice. It’s where the Angola 3 were incarcerated, alongside Zulu Whitmore, as political prisoners. It’s where Amnesty International has focused much of its anti-carceral state activism. Angola often gets held up as “a modern day slave plantation” and Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) is constantly in the news, most recently for healthcare-related violations. I’m not arguing that these offenses aren’t bad and that they should go unrecognized. But in many ways, all these statistics and examples from Louisiana perpetuate ideas about the backward South, the eternal other of the great United States. For this reason (and many others) many historians of the carceral state have shifted their focus to incarceration and policing in the North and West (Captive Nation by Dan Berger , Heather Thompson’s Blood in the Water, Kali Gross’s two books on Philadelphia). This is laudable and these stories need to be told. But for those of us who want to write the stories of the South, how do we do this without reinforcing false notions of southern exceptionalism and northern innocence? (This is not to say that people are not successfully doing this: David Oshinsky’s Worse than Slavery and Robert Parkinson’s Texas Tough). In “Blinded by the Barbaric South: Prison Horrors, Inmate Abuse, and the Ironic History of American Penal Reform” from the edited edition The Myth of Southern Exceptionalism, Historian Heather Ann Thompson writes “First and foremost, interpretations that emphasize the “exceptional” nature of the southern justice system obscure the extent to which historical penal practices in northern and western states also have been inhumane and deeply racialized. Seeing criminal justice practices in the South as divergent from national standards fundamentally distorts understandings of how race and power played out across the United States after the Civil War.”

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African American prisoners at compound no. 1, Angola, Louisiana ( Leadbelly in foreground); Prisoner with guitar, at compound no. 1, Angola, Louisiana, Alan Lomax photographer, between 1934 and 1940,  Lomax Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Instead of focusing on the many instances of inhumane treatment and abuse in the Louisiana prison system, especially against people of color, I am focusing on prisoner rights activists inside and outside of prison and their creative and intellectual production, their prisoner-rights organizing, and their spaces of activism. I aim to write about anti-carceral activism in New Orleans without furthering mythical notions about the South as “other.” I hope to avoid making New Orleans out to be the bad guy, when in fact the entirety of the United States is the “bad guy” when it comes to incarceration. From Lead Belly’s performances to lawsuits brought by the ACLU to Robert Hillary King’s memoir From the Bottom of the Heap, New Orleanians have fought incarceration in Louisiana. Though I’m writing a story of activism and agency now, I came to this project because I thought Angola was the “worst prison” and, in the way of an immature, budding historian, I thought something was only worth writing about if it was the worst. Tasked with choosing a research paper topic in my first semester of graduate school, I did exactly what I was told not to: I googled it. I landed on the Wikipedia page for the Louisiana State Penitentiary, which included a short paragraph on the Angola 3. While oft written about in popular culture, there didn’t seem to be much academically written about these men, locked in solitary confinement in the “worst” prison. I expected to write a tale of gross human rights violations and the aberration of the South. Instead I found a story of strength, activism, art, and love in the face of brutality. A story of friendship and organizing and people fighting for the lives and rights of these men at great personal risk. I wrote my thesis on the Angola 3, but as I traversed archives across Louisiana and conducted oral histories with activists across the country, I decided that I would focus on the uncommon strength and organizing of these men and women instead of dismissing an entire region as backwards.

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Angola Landing, State Penitentiary farm, Mississippi River, La., Detroit Publishing Co., Between 1900-1910, Detroit Publishing Co. Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Like many urban historians, sociologists, and other scholars, my focus is on the carceral state. I’m writing about activists, both historical and modern, who have fought for the rights of incarcerated people in New Orleans. In many cases, these activists had little in common beyond the commitment to the rights of the incarcerated. When prisons were being created across the country in the late 19th century, some of these activists fought for the creation of the Louisiana State Penitentiary. Others belonged to the NAACP and focused on the racial injustice embedded within Louisiana’s jails and prisons. Still more were involved with Black Power, education reform, and anarchist organizing. My project will follow prisoner rights activism in New Orleans from the late 19th century through to modern day organizing.

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Prison compound no. 1, Angola, Louisiana. Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter) in the foreground, Alan Lomax photographer, Lomax Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

How did people of color and other prisoner rights activists use writing, art, and music to express the injustice of the carceral state? How did they carve out spaces, often informal, to fight these injustices politically? These people are exceptional: not because they are Southerners, but because they are fighting, every day, to end incarceration and injustice in Louisiana. By focusing on these activists and their stories, I hope to add nuance to the stories of incarceration in the South. Louisiana has Angola and the OPP, but it also has the longest continuously active chapter of the NAACP, Women with a Vision, NOLA to Angola, and Books to Bars. These organizations, and the activists who make them work remake the story of incarceration in New Orleans every day. It’s a story of injustice, civil rights violations, and abuse, but is also one of art, strength, and organizing.

Holly Genovese is a PhD student and public historian at Temple University interested in Southern history, Intellectual history, Gender, and the Carceral State. She is also a blogger for the Society of U.S. Intellectual History and a contributing editor at Auntie Bellum magazine. You can read her work at https://www.hollygenovese.com/ and follow her on Twitter @HollyEvanMarie. 

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