Murder on Shades Mountain: The Legal Lynching of Willie Peterson and the Struggle for Justice in Jim Crow Birmingham

Melanie S. Morrison. Duke Univ., $26.95 (280p) ISBN 978-0-8223-7117-5
In this passionate account of Jim Crow–era injustice, educator and activist Morrison (The Grace of Coming Home) exposes how courtrooms “could function like lynch mobs when the defendant was black.” Birmingham, Ala., during the Depression was riven by racial, political, and economic tensions. An afternoon excursion in 1931 by three young white women resulted in the deaths by gunshot of two of them: Augusta Williams and Jennie Wood. The sole survivor, Augusta’s 18-year-old sister, Nell, was put under intense pressure to identify the murderer, who she claimed was a black man. Weeks later, Nell pointed at a passerby on the street, Willie Peterson, and claimed that he was the guilty party. Awaiting trial, Peterson was shot in jail by Nell and Augusta’s brother, Dent, but survived and attracted the assistance of the International Labor Defense, the NAACP, and eminent black legal scholar Charles Hamilton Houston. Despite this high-powered help, Peterson was sentenced to death, while Dent Williams, pleading temporary insanity, walked free. Alabama governor Benjamin Miller subsequently expressed “grave doubts” regarding Peterson’s guilt and in 1934 commuted Peterson’s sentence to life imprisonment. Peterson died of chronic tuberculosis in Kilby Prison in 1940, aged 46. 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. Photos. (Mar.)
Reviewed on: 01/08/2018
Release date: 03/30/2018
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