Crime and Punishment in African American History

Module code: HS3662

Module Outline

This module examines African American crime and punishment from the era of slavery to the present. It takes in some of the most dramatic and notorious events in American history, from slave rebellions to Ku Klux Klan murders, race riots, lynchings, discriminatory policing, and the war on drugs. It also examines how African Americans and others have challenged and forced reform of these practices using tactics as diverse as legal appeals, non-violent protests and armed self-defence.

The way in which this history is written and understood has far reaching consequences. As President Barack Obama explained in July 2013 after a Florida jury found George Zimmerman not guilty of the murder of the black teenager Trayvon Martin, it deeply influences how African Americans view the criminal justice system. It also offers a powerful counterpoint to the promises of America’s founding documents and the nation’s rhetorical and constitutional commitment to freedom, justice, the rule of law, and equal protection. It reveals an alternative American tradition in which violence has played as prominent a role as legal process, white supremacy has been as influential as egalitarian principles, and black resistance has played a primary role in the evolution of American ideas about law and justice.

Topics covered

We start by looking at the era of slavery, focusing on slave resistance, the cruel punishments that slaveholders imposed on their human property and the legal framework that underpinned this system. We also consider the way in which slaves were treated by the courts, both as defendants and victims of crime and how this supported white supremacy yet could also reveal chinks in the system’s armour. Slaves charged with serious crimes such as rebellion and murder were usually summarily tried and executed and slaveholders could go as far as murdering slaves without fear of much legal retribution, but the situation was not always so clear cut. White Americans sometimes disagreed about matters of slave policing and punishment and free African Americans and some northern abolitionists went so far as to support slave runaways and rebels in ways that ultimately contributed to slavery’s demise.

After the American Civil War, slavery was abolished, but violence and discrimination remained hallmarks of American criminal justice through the era of post-war Reconstruction and the years of segregation that stretched into the second-half of the twentieth century. In studying African Americans’ experiences of crime and punishment during these years, we look at developments in the American prison system, which trapped hundreds of thousands of African Americans in brutal forms of forced labour such as convict leasing, chain gangs and peonage that supported white supremacy and served the economic interests of the state, landholders, private corporations, and law enforcement officers. We also interrogate the brutal history of lynching and criminal trials, executions that in many cases were little more than “legal lynchings,” and racist policing and high rates of black imprisonment in northern cities.

The final weeks of the module examine issues of policing and punishment during the Civil Rights Movement and the mass incarceration of African Americans since the 1970s. The most explicit acts of racial violence and discrimination in the courts have largely been purged from American law enforcement during this era. As has happened repeatedly since the eighteenth century, however, new developments in policing and punishment since the 1960s have ensured that the discriminatory and repressive impact of criminal justice on African American life continues.

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