Justice  /  Q&A

A Record of Violence

Jim Crow terror, within and outside the law.

Jeanne Theoharis: I want to start by talking about the main arguments of the book. In the past two decades, we’ve started to focus on histories of lynching, particularly in the South. But in By Hands Now Known, you take us beyond spectacular forms of violence like lynching to more quotidian forms of violence, which are less visible but much more pervasive. What do we see when we look at this? What are the stakes of not seeing these regularized forms of violence in the detail and relief that you bring us to it with? 

Margaret Burnham: There are two questions here. I ask, “What was the nature of the violence? What were its causes, its effects, its manifestations, and its lasting legacies?” As we well know, there were thousands of lynchings, but lynching is often seen as an acute, extraordinary event. You can think about lynching as either a proxy for a system of racialized subordination or a symbol of it. But both of those perspectives, I argue, obscure other forms of violence that were far more pervasive and widely experienced—namely, physical assaults and homicides that do not meet the contemporary definition of lynching. These phenomena give a character to the Jim Crow period that we don’t necessarily see when we look only through the lens of lynching.

Violence was the handmaiden of Jim Crow.

What we have here is violence that was retributive, that was intended to and did spread terror, but that was also gratuitous. It was both random and systematic. I talk about the regularity of the violence—that it was ever-present. What I’m trying to bring to the reader is what life was like in that political and legal environment. In your own work, you remark that Rosa Parks talks about Jim Crow having Black people walk on a tightrope. The point of my book here is to explore exactly how violence shaped that tightrope.

The second question is “How did law absorb, accommodate, and sit within this violence?” We customarily perceive Jim Crow as a set of rules and regulations that were onerous, but manageable. But I argue that this violence was the handmaiden of Jim Crow. Jim Crow could only be enforced through violence. I wanted to make plain the nature of the racial legal contract that is constitutive of the Jim Crow period, which I’m talking about in relation to Charles Mills’ insights about the racial contract that undergirds the American polity. I wanted to illustrate the ways in which this racial contract shaped and defined the legal world in which folks lived during the Jim Crow period.