Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Morrison on legal lynching

In 2018, Melanie S. Morrison published Murder on Shades Mountain: The Legal Lynching of Willie Peterson and the Struggle for Justice in Jim Crow Birmingham with Duke University Press. From the publisher: 
Murder on Shades Mountain
One August night in 1931, on a secluded mountain ridge overlooking Birmingham, Alabama, three young white women were brutally attacked. The sole survivor, Nell Williams, age eighteen, said a black man had held the women captive for four hours before shooting them and disappearing into the woods. That same night, a reign of terror was unleashed on Birmingham's black community: black businesses were set ablaze, posses of armed white men roamed the streets, and dozens of black men were arrested in the largest manhunt in Jefferson County history. Weeks later, Nell identified Willie Peterson as the attacker who killed her sister Augusta and their friend Jennie Wood. With the exception of being black, Peterson bore little resemblance to the description Nell gave the police. An all-white jury convicted Peterson of murder and sentenced him to death.
In Murder on Shades Mountain Melanie S. Morrison tells the gripping and tragic story of the attack and its aftermath—events that shook Birmingham to its core. Having first heard the story from her father—who dated Nell's youngest sister when he was a teenager—Morrison scoured the historical archives and documented the black-led campaigns that sought to overturn Peterson's unjust conviction, spearheaded by the NAACP and the Communist Party. The travesty of justice suffered by Peterson reveals how the judicial system could function as a lynch mob in the Jim Crow South. Murder on Shades Mountain also sheds new light on the struggle for justice in Depression-era Birmingham. This riveting narrative is a testament to the courageous predecessors of present-day movements that demand an end to racial profiling, police brutality, and the criminalization of black men.
Praise for the book: 

 "In this passionate account of Jim Crow–era injustice, educator and activist Morrison exposes how courtrooms 'could function like lynch mobs when the defendant was black.'... Morrison, who is white, shares this painful story with clarity and compassion, emphasizing how much has changed since the 1930s, how much white people need to 'critically interrogate' the past, and how much 'remains to be done' in the fight for justice." - Publishers Weekly

"The author deserves praise for identifying Peterson’s trial as an important precursor to the 1960s civil rights movement. Audiences will be enthralled and angered by this all-too-familiar account of a criminal justice system that was and remains biased against black Americans." - Karl Helicher

"Morrison digs deeply into period newspapers and archives to uncover this story of injustice long overshadowed by the more famous Scottsboro Boys trial. A thoughtful look into a tale of prejudice and stolen justice that will find many readers who are interested in African American history, the early civil rights movement, and Southern history." - Chad E. Statler

Further information is available here.

-Mitra Sharafi

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