Violence and Resistance in Rural Communities

Faculty Respondent: Beth Lew-Williams, History, Princeton University

Mia Brett, History, Stony Brook University
“Montana Vigilantes and the Legacy of Vigilantism”

The history of the American frontier in the nineteenth century is one of intermittent lawlessness and weak federal control.  While cities in the east were forming police departments and building prisons, settlements in the west had little in the way of formal law and order.  Without a formal legal system many frontier communities turned to vigilante justice that ignored the due process of law and rebelled against attempts at federal intervention.  One such group was the Montana Vigilantes that lynched 24 people in 1864.  This group not only lynched supposed criminals but also lynched their sheriff on charges of corruption and theft. Most of the lynchers were Republicans, while most of those lynched were Democrats, demonstrating the political nature of vigilante justice.  The Montana Vigilantes are an example of rural justice in the nineteenth century outside the control of a formal legal system.

In much historical scholarship the Montana Vigilantes are the archetypal example of “good lynchers” who participated in vigilantism only out of frontier necessity.  According to this understanding, “bad lynching” was motivated by racism in the South.  In Montana, members of the vigilance committee became the founders of the state with monuments to them in their capitol.  Were the vigilantes enforcing law on an otherwise lawless territory, or were they using the rhetoric of lawlessness to justify their own lawless behavior?  The vigilance committee lynched supposed criminals without evidence or trial while claiming to be upholding the law.  This legacy of vigilantism in the founding of the state has remained part of the ethos of Montana as a rural frontier state with little crime due to people’s willingness to protect themselves against criminals without the need for federal intervention.

This paper will build on the work of historians such as Richard Maxwell Brown and Christopher Waldrep to continue to dismantle the Western stereotype of “good lynchings” and the supposed positive legacy of vigilante justice in Western territories.   This paper will question how the legacy of vigilantism in the West could have a long lasting effect on the legal experiences in rural communities.  While not the only example of frontier justice, the Montana Vigilantes provide an examination of the beginning of rural law and order and legal understandings based on a history on vigilantism.

Tyler Davis, Religion, Baylor University
“Life Beyond Lynch Law: Imagining the Human and Utopia in Rural Texas”

Robyn Wiegman has shown that the practice of lynching is about law. According to Jacqueline Goldsby and Grace Elizabeth Hale, lynching is also about the violent production of racial and cultural identity—whites were never whiter at the turn of the twentieth-century than when they participated in the terrorizing performance of lynching. This trajectory of scholarship makes clear that lynching was not an aberrant practice or social anomaly that took place outside of history, nor was it simply a transgression of normative legal arrangements. Instead it cohered within a matrix of logics—legal, racial, cultural, religious, and economic. Extending these announcements, I draw on Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s early critical descriptions of and interventions against what she called lynch law in the South. Lynch law names the disciplinary force of mob violence as law which regulated a white masculine definition of the human.

Furthermore, I read Sutton Griggs’ 1899 utopian novel Imperium in Imperio as an emergent mode of resistance to lynch law’s condemnation of blackness. Written during the nadir of spectacle lynchings in the South, this text enacts a utopian critique within what Clyde Woods calls the blues tradition of explanation that diagnoses lynching and envisions future life and space—a there and then—beyond its jurisdiction. Imperium maps a future that centers rural Texas as a home for black life to find belonging outside of the sovereignty of white racial terror and inside the register of the human. The utopian impulse towards a not yet existent social world anticipates a society otherwise than the horizon of white supremacist lynch law and its regulation of the human according to the color line.

Jillian Jacklin, History, University of Wisconsin
“A Family Affair: Working-Class Cultures, Politics, and Criminality in the 1930s, Fox River Valley”

This paper examines the influence of rural cultures and politics on the milk dumps and industrial sympathy strikes that occurred in the Fox River Valley and surrounding communities during the 1930s.  Today known more as a conservative area, workers in central and northeastern Wisconsin did not always express complacency with regard to their cultural influence, social status, or economic situation in the valley.  On the contrary, labor militancy may have characterized the demeanor of the working class best in this region during the decades soon after World War I.  The unfulfilled promises of loyalty campaigns, disenchantment with industrial capitalism, and increasing corporate expansion not only sparked a wave of worker protests in the Fox River Valley but also wielded a particular form of radicalism, specifically among the population of European immigrants and their descendants in the region.

Given that farming was a “family affair,” labor organizing occurred in an expansive arena that enveloped a broad spectrum of local communities and an abundance of everyday activities. Worker activism manifested not only in union halls and dairy cooperatives but also during participation in popular leisure pursuits and in spaces of communal gatherings.  Women and children played a crucial role in working-class protests and their effectiveness, as the labor movement relied heavily on the coordination and participation of farmer and factory worker families.  Whether at church, the park, a neighborhood community center, farmer home, or at cherished barn dance, worker recreational activities and cultural practices all took on a telling and more immediate meaning in the early 1930s in rural Wisconsin.

Using diaries, newspapers, local government documents (like judicial and police department records, municipal code books, and city charters), cooperative records, and oral histories, I address the following question: Were farmer goals and tactics radical, conservative, or something different?  Highlighting the violence associated with these protests and the community efforts that came along with them, this paper investigates the social and political visions of these farmers and their supporters, as well as the systems of social control that sought to suppress labor movement goals.  During the 1930s, workers in the Fox River Valley were militant about their demands for fair treatment, and their efforts helped inspire collective bargaining and New Deal labor legislation that both heightened and stifled working-class livelihood for the foreseeable future.

Heath Pearson, Anthropology, Princeton University
“The Carceral Outside: Living & Laboring in a NJ Prison Town”

My project interrogates the concept of “mass incarceration” from the perspective of a rural prison town in NJ. Since the early 1980s, the U.S. prison population has expanded by more than 500 per cent, with a staggering 7.3 million people currently under some form of carceral control. Scholars attribute this sustained expansion to deep-seated practices of racism/classism within the criminal justice system, fueled by federal drug policies and militarized policing. Absent in this literature is reference to the significance that more than sixty per cent of all new prison facilities are built in rural towns. Bridgeton, NJ—a rural town with a county jail, a state prison, and a federal prison—challenges the idea of mass incarceration both as a total social fact and as an exclusively state-federal project. For nearly a century, Bridgeton has incarcerated non-Whites for the use of labor, from farming work-camps for Japanese-Americans in WWII, up to incarcerated Black and Latino men cleaning streets and making repairs in 2015. In Bridgeton, I argue, local interests organized around specific land use in order to generate certain types of labor possibilities for certain raced people, thus exposing the local role, working in tandem with the state, to control the lowest end of the labor market to the benefit of local capital. Rather than understanding mass incarceration as a new effort, then, I claim U.S. society is always organizing in such a way that (racialized) mass incarceration is its likely outcome.