Justice  /  Book Review

A Regional Reign of Terror

Most Americans now grasp that violence was essential to the functioning of slavery, but a new book excavates the brutality of everyday Black life in the Jim Crow South.

In the Jim Crow South, for a Black person to step outside norms of behavior established by whites could be a death sentence. Violence could erupt at any time, for any reason, or for no reason at all. The “mundane, largely hidden violence” that loomed over Black life is the subject of Margaret A. Burnham’s new book, By Hands Now Known: Jim Crow’s Legal Executioners, a work by turns shocking, moving, and thought-provoking. It merits the attention of anyone interested in the historical roots of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and, more recently, Black Lives Matter.

Over the course of a long career, Burnham has been a pioneering civil rights attorney and legal scholar. In 1977 she became the first Black woman appointed to a judgeship in Massachusetts. Today she directs the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project at the Northeastern University School of Law, which chronicles the history of racist southern homicides between 1930 and 1970 and seeks to rescue the victims, many of whose stories have never been told, from historical oblivion. The project’s detective work has uncovered over one thousand such murders. Approximately thirty are discussed in detail in this book.

Often the perpetrators were the very officials sworn to uphold the law—police officers and sheriffs. Almost all the murderers escaped punishment. Complicity extended well beyond the actual killers. Prosecutors were reluctant to seek indictments; all-white trial juries refused to convict; the FBI, Department of Justice, and army, in the case of soldiers killed on American soil, almost never took action; and the Supreme Court eviscerated the constitutional amendments and laws Congress had enacted during Reconstruction that empowered federal authorities to punish those who deprived Blacks of constitutional rights. The diligent research of Burnham and her students in local records, the Black press, NAACP files, and interviews with descendants makes those who perished more than victims, bringing to light their family relations, jobs, and educations, and the details of the encounters that ended with their deaths.

Burnham’s account focuses on particularly dangerous locations, such as Birmingham, where the laws prohibiting homicide, she writes, “simply did not apply” to the police. Long before the 1963 confrontation between “Bull” Connor’s dogs and fire hoses and young civil rights demonstrators that marked the high point of the mass civil rights movement, shootings of Blacks and the bombing of their homes were shockingly commonplace. Fifty bombings took place in the city between 1947 and 1965, mostly directed against Black families who breached the color line by seeking to move into white neighborhoods. In 1948 alone, according to the Birmingham World, a Black newspaper, sixteen African American men died at the hands of law enforcement officers.