cover image By Hands Now Known: Jim Crow’s Legal Executioners

By Hands Now Known: Jim Crow’s Legal Executioners

Margaret A. Burnham. Norton, $30 (352p) ISBN 978-0-393-86785-5

Burnham, founding director of the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project at Northeastern University, debuts with a searing study of the “chronic, unpredictable violence that loomed over everyday Black life” in the Jim Crow South. The threat, Burnham contends, was not limited to the mob lynchings of African American boys and men accused of raping or sexually harassing white women, but also included such “quotidian violence” as the beating death of an “elderly Negro woman”—as a contemporaneous letter sent to the NAACP described her—by a white storekeeper in a small Georgia town in 1944. That murder, like many others recounted in the book, was not prosecuted and not reported on by local journalists. According to Burnham, these and other acts of racialized terror lie at the heart of the Jim Crow regime, which was a system of racial segregation as well as a statement about who could, and who could not, claim the privileges of American citizenship. Drawing upon a database created by Northeastern and MIT researchers that catalogues “racially motivated homicides” in the South between 1920 and 1960, Burnham illuminates the role that white terror played in controlling Black life, resistance efforts mounted by Black communities in the face of indifference and hostility from federal and local governments, and the legacy of Jim Crow in the modern-day judicial system. The result is an essential reckoning with America’s history of racial violence. Photos. (Sept.)