Georgia Nigger

Title page, Georgia Nigger by John Spivak— 1932

One of the neglected figures I’m starting to look into now is John Spivak, a reporter who “broke” the story of the abuses of Southern chain-gangs in the 1930s. I had never heard of him, but thanks to William Stott’s excellent treatment of him in Documentary Expression and Thirties America I felt like I needed to track down a copy of Georgia Nigger. This entry presents all the photographs used in the book, and some notes about the rhetorical perspective. The book opens with a postscript:

To have placed the scene of action of “Georgia Nigger” in some specific county would manifestly been unfair since it would have singled out for national opprobrium when it is no worse than many others in the state or other southern states; and to have presented a collection of factual, individual cases would have centered attention upon them and have left the many thousands of others as unknown as before.

Excellent studies in this field have been published by sociologists and penologists but they are too little known. I thought it wise to tell the story of David’s efforts to escape from a monstrous system, in the guise of fiction. But though all characters in Georgia Nigger are fictitious some of the scenes described are so utterly incredible that I feel an appendix of pictures and documents are necessary in this particular work. The pictures I took personally in various camps and the documents are but a few of the many gathering dust in the State Capitol in Atlanta.

Georgia does not stand alone as a state lost to fundamental justice and humanity. It was chosen because it is fairly representative of the Carolinas, Florida, Alabama— the whole far-flung Black Belt. Nor is the whole south as pictured here. There are many counties where conditions are infinitely better, and too many counties where they are infinitely worse.

I do not believe that the overwhelming proportion of intelligent and humane citizens of the south approves these conditions. In those representative southerners, white and black, with whom I discussed my investigations and showed the pictures and documents, I found a sense of startled horror and a desire to end these things.

To those who are vaguely familiar with the lives in Georgia Nigger from the shocking cases which reach the press from time to time, and who may think I deliberately chose sensational and extreme instances for David to see and hear and pass through, I make assurances that I have earnestly avoided that, not only because it would not have been a representative picture but because the extreme cases are unbelievable.

To those, colored and white, who helped me with introductions that opened up the doors of planter and sharecropper, peon and convict camp stockade, much gratitude is due.

The documentation in Spivak’s book is largely textual— state documents, many of which that describe the sort of abuses heaped upon prisoners as a matter of public record. Spivak presents them in the appendix, which opens with the letter which gave him entry to the prison system. Caution, the extended page displaying the photographs will load slowly because I wanted to present them at a size that was readable.

Second document— the first is pretty much identical
First photograph
Second photograph
Third photograph
Fourth photograph
Fifth photograph
Sixth photograph
Seventh photograph
Eighth photograph

The documents presented along with these photographs— on facing pages, with only one exception (photographs three and four face each other)— are pretty harrowing. It’s interesting to see the orders for whipping and torture on government documents. Overall, the book seems to be not nearly as “sensational” as Stott implies; it seems fairly matter-of-fact given the current perspective of historians, though I have not read the text completely yet. What I have read seems to reach for a fairly neutral tone— a neutral description of incredibly brutal facts.

2 thoughts on “Georgia Nigger”

  1. You might find a program coming up on PBS interesting. It is a show on the 1955 murder of Emmet Till which airs on January 20th @ 9pm. It was the brutal muder and the subsequent open coffin funeral of 14 year old Emmet, viewd by over 10,000 mourners that was really the spark that set off the civil rights movement as we knew it in the 50’s. It was just 100 days after Till’s death that Rosa Parks took her famous stand, or rather w should say seat, on a bus.

  2. Shalom…….these pictures…..have left me totally ,
    speechless…….ohhh my pain……..ohh my pain….,
    how could another “human” mentally ,,purposely
    do this??!…………truly unsettling……..this “REALITY”
    did exist……………for many of our brothers …and sisters………………….YHWH……………….help us all.

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