Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Roots of Disorder: Race and Criminal Justice in the American South, 1817-80

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Roots of Disorder: Race and Criminal Justice in the American South, 1817-80

Article excerpt

Roots of Disorder: Race and Criminal Justice in the American South, 1817-80. By Christopher Waldrep. (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, c. 1998 Pp. xvi, 267. Paper, $18.95, ISBN 0-252-06732-0; cloth, $45.00, ISBN 0-252-02425-7.)

Christopher Waldrep has written an innovative study of criminal justice in Vicksburg and Warren County, Mississippi. Waldrep has read widely in the secondary literature of southern and legal history and makes use of a broad range of primary sources. The heart of the book is based on a careful analysis of the records of criminal prosecutions in Warren County courts. He traces changes in the patterns of prosecutions and, by linking court records with census returns, informs us about the race, wealth, and gender of prosecutors and defendants, justices of the peace, jurors, and grand jurors. Some findings are familiar. Mississippians were prone to settle some kinds of disputes with informal justice--vigilante violence and duels--rather than take them to court. Slaves seldom appeared in formal courts, but when they did, they could receive a substantial measure of due process and impartial justice. Late in the antebellum era, Waldrep finds a growing commitment to formal law as a way of regulating disorder. He argues that legal formalism in the cases of slave defendants contradicted a "fundamental belief that law could not effectively discipline African Americans" and that white reaction "established the roots of disorder" (p. 59). These roots produced their poisonous flowers in the aftermath of war.

The chapters on Reconstruction are the most original. Waldrep argues that Mississippi's Black Code, while from today's perspective unacceptably discriminatory, demonstrated that whites were willing to try to use law to control emancipated slaves. He stresses white fear of crime, rather than the need to control black labor, as a major motivating force behind the code. During Republican Reconstruction, new courts were established, but there was no "revolution in either legal procedures or practices" (p. 145). As in the late antebellum era, lawyers' belief in due process gave genuine protections to African American defendants. …

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