22 Days on a Chain Gang

New York Post headline

Credit: New York Post

Like his fellow prisoners on the North Carolina chain gang, Rustin dug holes in the earth one day, and the next day he re-filled them. He worked on road projects that seemed never-ending. Rustin also gathered data from his fellow prisoners about their educational levels, employment backgrounds, and previous arrests and incarcerations. He made detailed mental notes on the torturous punishments meted out arbitrarily by guards, as well as the petty signs of deference the guards demanded of the prisoners. He wrote down the lyrics to work songs made up spontaneously by the chained crewmembers. Released in twenty-two days for good behavior, he drafted a five part series for the New York Post titled “22 DAYS ON A CHAIN GANG.” The series’ grinding recapitulation of day-to-day details, combined with Rustin’s recommendations for change, led to the abolition of the chain gang in North Carolina. 

A Report on Twenty-Two Days on the Chain Gang at Roxboro, North Carolina by Bayard Rustin (PDF)

permission from the Estate of Bayard Rustin