"Worse Than Slavery" is an epic history of race and punishment in the deepest South from emancipation to the civil rights era - and beyond. Southern prisons have been immortalized in convict work songs, in the blues, and in movies such as Cool Hand Luke and The Defiant Ones. Mississippi's Parchman Penitentiary was the grandfather of them all, an immense, isolated plantation with shotguns, whips, and bloodhounds, where inmates worked the cotton fields in striped clothing from dawn to dusk. William Faulkner described Parchman as "destination doom." Its convicts included bluesmen like "Son" House and "Bukka" White, who featured the prison in the legendary "Midnight Special" and "Parchman Farm Blues." Noted historian David M. Oshinsky draws on prison records, pardon files, folklore, oral history, and the blues to offer an unforgettable portrait of Parchman and Jim Crow justice - from the horrors of convict leasing in the late nineteenth century to the struggle for black equality in the 1960s, when Parchman was used to break the spirit of civil rights workers who journeyed south on the Freedom Rides. In Mississippi, the criminal justice system often proved that there could be something worse than slavery. The "old" Parchman is gone, a casualty of federal court orders in the 1970s. What it tells us about our past is well worth remembering in a nation deeply divided by race.
David M. Oshinsky, PhD, is a professor in the NYU Department of History and director of the Division of Medical Humanities at the NYU School of Medicine. In 2005, he won the Pulitzer Prize in History for Polio: An American Story. His other books include the D.B. Hardeman Prize-winning A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy, and the Robert Kennedy Prize-winning "Worse Than Slavery" Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice. His articles and reviews appear regularly in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.