Jim Crow’s Legal Executioners

Margaret Burnham’s By Hands Now Known: Jim Crow’s Legal Executioners (W.W. Norton & Company, 2022) excavates little-known accounts of violence toward African Americans by white mobs and southern police. It also explores weighty themes of Black fugitivity, protest, and community building. Set against a backdrop of racial terror and the abridgment of rights afforded by the Reconstruction Amendments, Burnham’s work provides numerous examples of Black people subverting southern states’ attempts to enact violence upon them. Her scholarship also pays homage to the Black men and women who suffered grisly deaths at the hands of white actors across class and occupational lines. A central part of her argument is that those inflicting physical violence were only part of the problem. The lack of due process afforded to Black southerners, the apathy of many politicians, and the sadism of sheriffs are all reflective of the multidimensional nature of violence. By Hands Now Known is, fundamentally, a work about continuities, showing how racial inequality has been woven into our nation’s fabric and sustained by law.

A renowned legal scholar and professor at the Northeastern University School of Law, Burnham has been rightfully lauded for illuminating the myriad racially motivated homicides of the Jim Crow era. She founded the hugely consequential Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project, which not only memorializes those whose lives have been snuffed out by white supremacy, but petitions governments for redress of grievances. As such, Burnham deserves our admiration for both honoring the departed and fighting for their families. Her attention to past and present atrocities underpins By Hands Now Known as she reflects on how the specter of slavery continues to haunt our nation. It is difficult not to think of more contemporary victims of violence such as Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Philando Castille, and Tyre Nichols. Yet, just as Burnham recounts the myriad instances of racialized violence during the Jim Crow era that have only recently been mined, there are similarly victims of the twenty-first century whose stories have been suppressed by malevolent actors operating within ostensibly colorblind institutions.

Given this book’s unbridled ambition, Burnham’s scholarship can be placed alongside a number of authors. Her exploration of the extent to which white Southerners’ physical aggression toward Black bodies was entangled with racist political objectives is shared by Hannah Rosen’s harrowing Terror in the Heart of Freedom (2009). They each problematize the implicit assumption that violence largely occurred by lynching in the Jim Crow era, making sure to emphasize other forms of violence.  Burnham’s interest in the ways that Black mobility has been curtailed are echoed in Stephanie Camp’s pioneering Closer to Freedom (2004) and Rashauna Johnson’s excellent Slavery’s Metropolis (2016).

Another interlocutor of Burnham’s would be Mia Bay, whose Bancroft Prize-winning book Traveling Black (2021) is similarly interested in Black resistance to racist mandates which impeded upon African Americans’ right to travel safely and comfortably. Kate Masur’s timely Until Justice Be Done (2021) shares several similarities with Burnham’s text. Each foregrounds the Midwest, situating it within a national arc of Black fugitivity. They also speak to the importance of Black civic institutions in the crusade for racial justice. Finally, both authors illustrate how explicitly racist laws became rephrased and repackaged, continuing to result in deadly outcomes for African Americans.

The strengths of Burnham’s book are manifold. Although she painstakingly details the quotidian acts of violence pervading the Jim Crow South, Burnham refuses to reduce their lives to tragedy.

Instead, she strives to paint a portrait of the men and women who inhabit her story, along with their communities. Her varied source base, encompassing newspapers, letters, photographs, and oral accounts, ensure that this work remains, above all, human centered. Accessibly written and responsibly recounted, By Hands Now Known is a treasure. There are always enormous ethical stakes when navigating terrains of violence in the archive, which is itself implicated in such an enterprise. Burnham remembers her responsibility to the victims of American racism and, as such, merits commendation.

Despite how remarkable this work is, there were a couple of missed opportunities. Burnham makes a thought-provoking parallel between Black southerners who made it to the North and maroon communities, who runaway slaves and their descendants found all across the Atlantic World. A few historians such as Steven Hahn have also made such a comparison, although many historians of marronage would disagree with Hahn’s contention that fugitive slaves living in northern cities like Philadelphia were maroons. Burnham does not quite make the same argument as Hahn, but she does strive to situate refugees from Jim Crow violence alongside enslaved people who absconded to the North. While she is certainly correct in being attuned to continuities, Burnham does not explicate the theoretical stakes of such a comparison. This can be forgiven, considering the sheer breadth of her project. However, Burnham’s tackling of so many urgent themes sometimes prevents her from more fully fleshing out a particular one. For instance, her discussion of the kidnapping of Black people is of monumental importance. It resonates so strongly today given that America’s missing youth are disproportionately Black. Discussing this phenomenon to a greater extent would have only augmented Burnham’s work.

By Hands Now Known concludes with an impassioned plea for reparative justice and a focus on victims of police brutality. A common critique levied against the notion of reparations is that those who endured the institution of slavery are dead. Regardless of whether or not one finds this argument convincing, there are many people today whose families have been irreparably damaged by Jim Crow violence. Burnham contends that reparations are particularly appropriate for those families who have lost people to lynching and police violence. She points out that past inequities drive present-day ones, rendering reparative justice imperative.

In her epilogue, Burnham includes a startling discovery that she made after the murder of George Floyd in 2020: a Black man with the same name was beaten to death by a policeman in 1945. Burnham concludes with a call for remembrance; all of the people slain on account of racialized violence mattered.

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Taylor Prescott

Taylor Prescott is a third year Ph.D. History student at the University of Pennsylvania. His work focuses on slavery and abolitionism throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth century British Empire. Prescott is also interested in Black transnationalism, revolution, counterrevolution, and migration. He received his bachelor’s degree in History from Fisk University in 2017 and his M.A. in Global History from Georgetown University in 2019. Prescott has been awarded fellowships from the Fulbright Foundation, the John Carter Brown Library, and Lapidus Center at the Schomburg Center.

Comments on “Jim Crow’s Legal Executioners

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    The title is fascinating. Many of the accounts and histories I have read emphasize that though well known at the time, “the hands of white actors across class and occupational lines” who sponsored, committed and justified these crimes were not recorded in the accounts. This changes a little bit starting in the 1950s when there were some trials. It would be instructive to “go into the mob” and name the names of those white actors. This might promote a modern attempt to trace the genealogy of this viciousness in the white community from generation to generation. Clearly, it has been carefully passed down.

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    Having been born at the tail end of the Jim Crow era in the South, I am eager to read this book.

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    I look forward to reading this book. I grew up in a community in rural Tennessee and would sit and listen to the stories my great grandmother would tell, usually after a holiday meal and family members who chose to remain in the north or Midwest would come to visit. Over time, the stories narrative would change and be replaced by somber quietness. All of my great grandparents, uncles and aunts have passed on but their stories live on in other forms and told by other people and for this I am forever thankful. I can now read in books or hear from historians and researchers .

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    Excellent review-I look forward to reading the book. Thank you, Taylor!

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    Excellent review. I appreciate the list of similar books. It would have been nice to read a citation or two from the book to illustrate the writer’s claims.

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