Law Professor Unearths Murder Cases from Jim Crow Era

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tags: racism, civil rights, violence, lynching

In her new book, By Hands Now Known, Margaret Burnham reports on little-known cases of racial violence in the Jim Crow era, including crimes that went unreported and murderers who were never punished.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. In 1955, Joyce Nelson, a 13-year-old Black teenager in Mayflower, Texas, was hanging out with her cousin, listening to music on a cafe jukebox. In an interview decades later, she described what happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOYCE NELSON: We was all in, having fun, playing music. And my cousin said, do you want to dance?

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

NELSON: We heard a loud noise. All of a sudden, he turned my hand loose and fell to the floor. And I heard people saying, they just killed that boy. And I looked down on the floor, and he was laying down there.

DAVIES: Her cousin, 16-year-old John Earl Reese, was shot through the cafe windows by two white men, angry that a school was being built in town for Black kids. That interview is from a documentary about the work of the Northeastern University Law School's Civil Rights & Restorative Justice Project, founded by our guest, Margaret Burnham. The project, co-directed by MIT political science professor Melissa Nobles, has documented racial violence of the Jim Crow era in the United States, often unearthing cases never reported in local media and undocumented in court records. The project has assembled a database of roughly a thousand murders between 1930 and 1955. In nearly all cases, the perpetrators escaped any punishment.

Burnham chronicles some of the most compelling cases and explores the legal and institutional underpinnings of Jim Crow violence in a new book. Margaret Burnham is a professor of law who has worked as a civil rights lawyer, a defense attorney and a judge in Massachusetts. She was also one of five people appointed by President Biden to the Civil Rights Cold Case Review Board, created by Congress to improve public access to records of unsolved, racially motivated crimes. Burnham's new book is "By Hands Now Known: Jim Crow's Legal Executioners." Margaret Burnham, welcome to FRESH AIR.

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