This harrowing book by the Atlanta bureau chief of reviews a vital but little-studied aspect of southern life in the 75 years following the American Civil War: the systematic abuse of the court system to hold hundreds of thousands of African Americans in slavery. Convicted of minor misdemeanors on trumped-up charges, black defendants unable to pay judgments and fines were forced to sign labor contracts with any whites who chose to pay their fines. The labor contracts gave the contract owners the right to discipline their workers with whips and chains and could be extended indefinitely, essentially at the whims of the contract holders. Leasing convicts was big business, providing more than ten percent of the state of Alabama's income in some years, and convicts toiled not only on plantations but also in factories and mines. Moreover, the incentives for humane treatment that existed under slavery disappeared under this system; the conditions were worse, and the mortality rate was higher in many convict encampments than among pre-Civil War slaves. Blackmon does an extraordinary job of re-creating this system for the reader and using old court records and other sources to tell the story of individuals caught up in this chamber of horrors. Jim Crow was much more than discrimination; it was a system of oppression, and its legacy is in some ways more corrosive than that of slavery. This book will help readers begin to grasp the horror of an evil that persisted into living memory.
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