Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era
by Dan Berger
University of North Carolina Press, November 2014
Winner of the 2015 James A. Rawley Prize from the Organization of American Historians!
From the publisher: “In this pathbreaking book, Dan Berger offers a bold reconsideration of twentieth century black activism, the prison system, and the origins of mass incarceration. Throughout the civil rights era, black activists thrust the prison into public view, turning prisoners into symbols of racial oppression while arguing that confinement was an inescapable part of black life in the United States. Black prisoners became global political icons at a time when notions of race and nation were in flux. Berger traces the dynamic and dramatic history of this political struggle, illuminating the many ways in which imprisonment was a central focus of the black radical imagination from the 1950s through the 1980s.
“The prison shaped the rise and spread of black activism, from civil rights demonstrators willfully risking arrests to the many current and former prisoners that built or joined organizations such as the Black Panther Party and the Republic of New Afrika. Grounded in extensive research, Berger engagingly demonstrates that such organizing made prison walls porous and influenced generations of activists that followed.”
Praise for the book:
“In this richly documented and powerfully told history, Dan Berger reveals how the seeds of mass incarceration were sown inside a larger war on Black Liberation movements. He beautifully restores the central role that prisoners and prison organizing played in those movements. This is an urgent account of a dynamic and complex Black radical movement whose profound impact could not be contained behind bars.”
— Robin D. G. Kelley, author of Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination
“‘If prison walls could talk’ Dan Berger tells us, ‘their stories would reveal profound and largely untapped reservoirs of politics and culture.’ Captive Nation is a rich and systematic account of an inadequately understood front of the Civil Rights struggle: Black prison organizers. Their theoretical and practical insights and activities shaped and were shaped by movement in the so-called free world against the giant triplets of racism, capitalism, and militarism. Berger leaves us with pressing questions for the USA now, where incarceration is far more intensive and extensive than at any time in history or anywhere on the planet.”
— Ruth Wilson Gilmore, author Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California
“Captive Nation is truly brilliant and innovative. This thoroughly researched book makes an important contribution to a number of historical and interdisciplinary fields. It is a well-written and well-researched exploration of the role prisoners played in global movements against racism. It will certainly assume its rightful place at the head of the line in the emerging field of prisoner rights and radicalism in the postwar United States.”
— Donna Murch, author of Living for the City: Migration, Education, and the Rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California
“Numerous scholars have distilled the grotesque features of the prison experience or described the sheer scale of mass incarceration. Others have chronicled the carceral turn where black freedom struggles of the mid-twentieth century gave way to the War on Drugs of today. But few have given voice to black prisoners as freedom activists and radical organizers in their own right until now. Dan Berger’s Captive Nation shows, by their example, that America’s most enduring paradox is its capacity to generate freedom with violence, to expand democracy and imprison its citizens. No histories of post–Civil Rights America can ignore this indispensable book.”
— Khalil Gibran Muhammad, author of The Condemnation of Blackness