I am the production dramaturg for The Parchman Hour by Mike Wiley. The play is being produced at the PlayMakers Repertory Company at UNC Chapel Hill from October 26 to November 13, 2011. The text of this post contains the dramaturgical notes I wrote for the program of the play. It’s a well crafted and politically significant play, so if you live anywhere within driving distance of Chapel Hill, go to see the show!
Throughout the American South, Parchman Farm is synonymous with punishment and brutality, as well it should be.
-David M. Oshinsky, author of “Worse Than Slavery”: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice
Since its establishment in 1901, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, also known as Parchman Farm, has had a reputation for being one of the bloodiest and most dangerous prisons in the United States. A former plantation owned by a family named Parchman, the prison’s legacy of farm labor and a mostly black prisoner population remain in place to this day. Historically, most prisoners at Parchman have worked in the fields, tending the cotton by hand for ten hours a day, six days a week. Though prisoners now grow vegetables rather than cotton, they still work the same fields that their enslaved ancestors once plowed. In 2010, the incarcerated workers at Parchman spent 732,326 hours in agricultural labor (Mississippi Department of Corrections Website). Some things don’t change much over time, especially in prison, especially in the South.
Parchman’s notoriety as a place of terror long predates the arrival of the Freedom Riders in 1961. After the end of the Civil War, much of the South—and Mississippi in particular—persisted without much infrastructure of any kind. Devastated by the economic and human cost of the war, Mississippians of all racial backgrounds now faced not only the confusion of Reconstruction but also the new legal status of the 400,000 blacks in the state. White legislators quickly drafted the first Jim Crow laws, and Parchman—the only maximum security men’s facility in Mississippi to this day—became the destination for a great many black men (and some women) who were put to work both on the farm and outside of it as part of the convict lease system. Most of the major cities in the South were rebuilt during Reconstruction on the backs of prisoners working on chain gangs (a practice which continues today in Arizona). Both in terms of their monetary worth and their health and safety, blacks had been more valuable as slaves than they were as prisoners. A slave, like any other piece of livestock, needed to be kept in good working condition if a slave owner wanted to maximize his or her productivity. A prisoner, however, ceased to be an asset and could be worked to death without any fiscal loss to the state. The practice of laboring prisoners literally to death was so common that, “Not a single leased convict ever lived long enough to serve a sentence of ten years or more” (Oshinsky, p. 46).
Even those not placed on the chain gangs risked death each day at Parchman. The field laborers at Parchman are still patrolled by guards on horseback carrying rifles. Guards punished prisoners with such severe beatings that many died from the lashes of a leather whip known as Black Annie. Prison administrators and guards also employed the biggest and toughest prisoners to strong arm their peers into submission, even offering guns to some of them to shoot anyone who tried to escape while working in the fields. The severity of the conditions at Parchman prompted a lawsuit in 1972 in which the Honorable William C. Keady declared the prison “an affront ‘to modern standards of decency.’” He ruled for an immediate end to many disciplinary practices at Parchman, including,
beating, shooting, administering milk of magnesia, or stripping inmates of their clothes, turning fans on inmates while they are naked and wet, depriving inmates of mattresses, hygienic materials and/or adequate food, handcuffing or otherwise binding inmates to fences, bars, or other fixtures, using a cattle prod to keep inmates standing or moving, or forcing inmates to stand, sit or lie on crates, stumps or otherwise maintain awkward positions for prolonged periods. (Gates v. Collier)
Death and pain—and the fear of those things—remain part of the atmosphere of most prisons, but the vast seclusion of the 18,000 acres of this former plantation, regional efforts to maintain white supremacy after the Civil War, and the inherent racism of the U.S. criminal justice system enabled a culture of perpetual violence to rule Parchman even more strongly than many other prisons in this country.
Mike Wiley’s new play, The Parchman Hour, gives audiences a glimpse of this prison in 1961 when a group of black and white civil rights activists known as the Freedom Riders served thirty-nine days on the infamous farm after being arrested in Jackson, Mississippi. On May 4, 1961, the first Freedom Ride set out from Washington, DC, carrying thirteen men and women on Trailways and Greyhound buses. These travelers meant to assert the basic right for whites and blacks to sit with one another on a bus, anywhere in the United States. Their peaceable action met with intense hostility from segregationists. By the time the Freedom Riders reached Jackson, Mississippi, they had already faced many beatings and murderous mobs. Under such circumstances, one might be tempted to assume that they were likely to be safer in prison than on these ill-fated buses, but the protestors knew Parchman’s reputation well and had every reason to fear for their lives when they were brought to the legendary farm. Their ride for freedom ended in incarceration.
The bus rides themselves provided sufficient evidence of the Freedom Riders’ bravery and the depth of their belief in the Civil Rights Movement. However, the Riders further proved their resiliency and their devotion to human rights by maintaining their strength, humor, and commitment to one another during the weeks they spent inside Parchman. Few people have the will to sing about freedom while they are held captive, to engage in hunger strikes when they have already lost much of their physical strength, to hold fast to their ideals when almost no one can see them do it. They faced Parchman and still believed in the dignity of all people. The Parchman Hour does much to capture the sheer force of will of the Freedom Riders, and it raises up their songs and stubborn optimism in the face of terrible violence and irrevocable injustice. They, like Martin Luther King, Jr., Ghandi, and Cesar Chavez, imagined the freedom and equality they did not have and sought to create it with little more than their bodies and voices.
Though the Freedom Riders had a significant hand in the many great triumphs of the Civil Rights Movement, neither they nor the many others who fought for freedom in the 1960s managed to eradicate racism, inequality, or the brutality of incarceration. In 2008 the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) released a report about the “horrific conditions” at Parchman Farm. HIV-positive prisoners began writing to the ACLU in 1998, explaining that:
they were living in squalor, categorically segregated from the rest of the prison population, and barred from all prison educational and vocational programs and jobs. They told us that they were dying like flies because prison doctors refused to give them the “cocktail” (the triple-drug combination therapy that since 1997 had begun to change HIV from an inevitably fatal disease to a treatable chronic illness). (Winter and Hanlon, “Parchman Farm Blues,” ACLU Website)
The ACLU investigation found that of the one hundred twenty men being held in segregation, eighty percent were black and most were convicted of nonviolent offenses. Their report describes these men as being “warehoused in a virtual leper colony and left to die.” ACLU lawyers spent nearly ten years in litigation before they felt that officials at Parchman were finally taking steps to change these conditions in 2007. Life on the Farm doesn’t change much.
The courage of the Freedom Riders—and indeed Mike Wiley’s play—ought to push us out of our seats and into our own forms of protest. We cannot merely marvel at what those in the Civil Rights Movement did for us; we must root out the injustices which surround us today, both those that are readily apparent and those which are deliberately hidden from us. The United States incarcerates 2.3 million people today (one in every one hundred of its citizens) (US Bureau of Justice Website). Our schools are now more segregated than they were in 1954 when the Brown decision was handed down (www.projectcensored.org). In 2010, 17.2 million households in the U.S. did not have enough food to feed their families—a higher rate of hunger than we have seen in this country’s history (www.worldhunger.org). If we admire the Freedom Riders, then we must seek to become them in new ways and in unexpected places. We cannot be content to ignore the persistent legacies of racial inequality, but we must be creative—like the Freedom Riders—and imagine the bus before we can get on it.