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Captive Nation

Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era

Dan Berger
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 424
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  • Book Info
    Captive Nation
    Book Description:

    In this pathbreaking book, Dan Berger offers a bold reconsideration of twentieth century black activism, the prison system, and the origins of mass incarceration. Throughout the civil rights era, black activists thrust the prison into public view, turning prisoners into symbols of racial oppression while arguing that confinement was an inescapable part of black life in the United States. Black prisoners became global political icons at a time when notions of race and nation were in flux. Showing that the prison was a central focus of the black radical imagination from the 1950s through the 1980s, Berger traces the dynamic and dramatic history of this political struggle.The prison shaped the rise and spread of black activism, from civil rights demonstrators willfully risking arrests to the many current and former prisoners that built or joined organizations such as the Black Panther Party. Grounded in extensive research, Berger engagingly demonstrates that such organizing made prison walls porous and influenced generations of activists that followed.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-1826-5
    Subjects: Sociology, Law

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Preface
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. xv-xviii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-19)

    On November 3, 1970, prisoners at California’s Folsom State Prison launched a work strike. For the next nineteen days, more than twenty-four hundred men—almost the entire prison population—refused to leave their cells or participate in any way in the routine functioning of the prison. At the outset, the men released a “Manifesto of Demands and Anti-Oppression Platform” that amounted to an auspicious challenge to the prison as an institution. “We the imprisoned men of Folsom Prison seek an end to the injustice suffered by all prisoners, regardless of race, creed, or color,” the statement began. The platform consisted...

  6. CHAPTER ONE The Jailhouse in Freedom Land
    (pp. 20-48)

    It was unlike any testimony the committee had heard before. Then again, there was little typical about the August 1964 Democratic National Convention. Gathered in Atlantic City, the Democratic Party was experiencing the most profound political challenge imaginable as a group of black Mississippians, most of them tenant farmers, worked to unseat the openly white supremacist delegation of that state. The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party formed officially on April 24 of that year, emerging from years of tireless work by civil rights activists in the Sunflower State. Four months after it began, the Freedom Democrats shook the national Democratic Party...

  7. CHAPTER TWO America Means Prison
    (pp. 49-90)

    Willie Robert Tate was like a lot of young black men in California. He was born in Alabama and had lived in Texas before migrating with his family to the Golden State in the 1950s. As a teenager, his anger at the pervasive racism he encountered, especially from police, made him headstrong. And like many men of his age, race, and class, he soon found himself on the wrong side of the law.

    He was first arrested at age fourteen. He had run away from home for six months, and when he returned, his parents told the police, who locked...

  8. CHAPTER THREE George Jackson and the Black Condition Made Visible
    (pp. 91-138)

    There was plenty of champagne and good cheer at the book party held outside the gates of San Quentin on October 15, 1970. Friends and colleagues from Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco extolled the author. So did the book’s editor, Gregory Armstrong of Bantam Books, who flew out to Marin County from New York City to speak at the celebration. The event organizers gave everyone in attendance a free copy of the book, which soon became a best seller. The only person missing was the author. From his cell, George Jackson, prisoner A63837, could not see the crowd that had...

  9. CHAPTER FOUR The Pedagogy of the Prison
    (pp. 139-176)

    His parents named him Luis Talamantez, but everyone called him Bato, a Mexican Spanish colloquialism for a respected man, a comrade. He had been in and out of California state institutions since the age of twelve. In 1965, Los Angeles Superior Court judge Joseph Wapner (the same Judge Wapner who later became famous on the television showThe People’s Court) sentenced the twenty-three-year-old Talamantez to two five-year-to-life sentences stemming from two robberies that netted him $130. No one was hurt in either incident, but Wapner appeared to want to make an example out of Talamantez, much as an earlier judge...

  10. CHAPTER FIVE Slavery and Race-Making on Trial
    (pp. 177-222)

    Ruchell Magee was angry but focused as he rose to denounce the courtroom proceedings. It was June 1971, and Magee was on trial for his role in the Marin County Courthouse escape attempt the previous August, when Jonathan Jackson armed three prisoners. Jackson and two of the prisoners were felled by San Quentin guards before they could escape, and now Magee, the only surviving participant, stood trial for the death of Judge Harold Haley, the one hostage killed in the incident.

    Magee was resolute and intractable. He demanded that the court hold a hearing on the “illegal slavery” in which...

  11. CHAPTER SIX Prison Nation
    (pp. 223-267)

    George Jackson’s death gave many people imprisoned in the early 1970s a new life. Jackson had been the most effective spokesperson for prisoner grievances, and his death meant that new voices of discontent would need to emerge. One person who took up this challenge was Robert Lee Duren, who had been in prison since 1968. Prior to his incarceration, he had not expressed any interest in politics. His story was an increasingly familiar one: reared in poverty, he came of age amid gangs and widespread violence and ultimately got involved in increasingly antisocial behavior. In 1969, he was convicted of...

  12. Epilogue Choosing Freedom
    (pp. 268-280)

    Freedom, as an idea and as a practice, has been an enduring paradox of the United States from its origins to the present. Freedom and the various principles it is said to encompass have been encoded into the national origin story of the United States through genocide and enslavement. Violence does not just undermine the goal of American freedom; it is one of its central tenets. As a result, violence and freedom have together constituted the American experience.¹ The history of prison organizing tells us that this sad reality is not inevitable, however, for the diverse institutions, ideologies, and infrastructures...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 281-336)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 337-376)
  15. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 377-380)
  16. Index
    (pp. 381-402)