Public Outrage and National Cases

During the 1930s, several high-profile cases and popular autobiographies brought the issue of penal reform to the forefront of the American consciousness. Robert E. Burns’s 1932 autobiography, I Am a Fugitive From a Georgia Chain Gang!, caught Hollywood’s attention and was adapted for film by Warner Bros. Burns, a World War I veteran, was sentenced in 1921 to six to ten years of hard labor on a Georgia chain gang for participating in a robbery of $5.81 from a grocery store. He escaped from the chain gang but was then returned to Georgia's Troup County Prison Camp, where he escaped once again.

The same year Burns’s autobiography was published, an African American labor organizer named Angelo Herndon was arrested for staging a protest at Atlanta’s Fulton County Courthouse on behalf of Black and white workers across the United States. The International Labor Defense (ILD), a legal advocacy organization, and prominent activists rushed to his aid, and Herndon’s case gained national attention. An all-white jury convicted him of attempting to incite an insurrection, and a judge sentenced him to serve eighteen to twenty years on a Georgia chain gang. In 1937 the United States Supreme Court ruled in Herndon v. Lowry, declaring Georgia’s insurrection statute unconstitutional under the First Amendment. The ruling overturned Herndon’s original conviction and set him free. Herndon’s autobiography, Let Me Live, was published in the midst of this trial. Free on bail in 1935, Herndon undertook several speaking tours to publicize his case. To dramatize Herndon’s plight, the ILD constructed a replica of the standard cage sometimes used to house prisoners assigned to a Georgia chain gang.