Professor Margaret Burnham’s New Book, By Hands Now Known, Challenges Our Understanding of the Jim Crow Era
We celebrate By Hands Now Known’s awards, nominations and accolades:
- Los Angeles Times Book Prize: winner in the history category
- Hillman Prize: book category
- Nautilus Book Award: gold medal for journalism and investigative reporting
- NPR: Books We Love in 2022
- Named a Best Book of the Year: The New Yorker, Oprah Daily, Kirkus, Chicago Public Library and Publishers Weekly
- Massachusetts Book Awards Must-Read Nonfiction: long listed
- Kirkus Prize: finalist in nonfiction
- Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction: long listed
Listen to Professor Burnham’s appearance on NPR’s “Fresh Air.”
09.12.22 — In 1945, a Black man named George Floyd was accused of being drunk on a Saturday evening and jailed. After he protested against a second invasive search, the arresting officer beat him to death as he lay on the cell floor. To Professor Margaret Burnham, the discovery of this precursor to the 2020 George Floyd murder was striking, but not shocking. “Lawless police acting on behalf of the state has defined how Black people experienced American law for two centuries,” says Burnham. Though the white officer who killed Floyd in 2020 was tried and convicted, many such killings have been carried out with impunity. In By Hands Now Known: Jim Crow’s Legal Executioners (W.W. Norton & Company, 2022), Burnham examines the true scope and nature of Jim Crow-era violence, the laws that condoned it, and their legacy today.
Many may recognize the names of civil rights activists — from Rosa Parks to Medgar Evers to Martin Luther King Jr. — but they likely have little sense of the quotidian violence of Jim Crow, the system of white supremacy that prevailed between the late-19th and mid-20th century. Burnham crucially fills this gap. For over a decade she has directed Northeastern University School of Law’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project (CRRJ), supported by grants from the Mellon Foundation, the Ford Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York. This fall, CRRJ’s groundbreaking Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive of 1,000 cases of previously undocumented racial homicides between 1930 and 1955 will be released in conjunction with the publication of By Hands Now Known. Researchers, primarily Northeastern Law and other university graduate students, used newspaper accounts, court testimony and rulings, and coroner’s reports, and traveled across the country for interviews with surviving witnesses, family and clergy. These killings — by wardens of ordinary public activities including shopkeepers, bus drivers and others — made up the “chronic, unpredictable violence that loomed over everyday Black life.”
Shining a spotlight on communities across the South, these cases concern individuals whose murders were discounted and ignored for decades. Such violence and disregard destroyed victims’ families, and their stories and memories were sometimes lost entirely to the next generation. Having unearthed this often-buried history, Burnham, who was appointed by President Biden to the national Civil Rights Cold Case Review Board in 2021, brilliantly examines why these murders went unpunished. She explains how Jim Crow laws and practices transported the norms of slavery into the American criminal justice system, and how they were sanctioned by the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson, creating a “national legal system that endorsed and sustained a missionary commitment to a future of perpetual white rule.” The violence was no accident, she argues: by solidifying white male domination and repressing Black political participation, it “sustained Jim Crow for over half a century.” In this sweeping analysis, Burnham addresses rendition, by which states make claims to other states for the return of citizens; transportation and mobility, stemming from bus drivers, police, and fellow riders victimizing Black soldiers during World War II; and abduction, because, she writes, Jim Crow “erased the crime of kidnapping from the codebooks where the victims were Black,” with Southern states failing well into the 1960s to prosecute kidnappers. Burnham also covers “the other half of the story” — fighting back. She reveals the robust resistance before the civil rights movement: demonstrations, civil lawsuits, petitions, the Black press and the key role Black women’s creative defiance of Jim Crow played in undercutting the legitimacy of the system.
By Hands Now Known focuses on the 20th century but is acutely relevant to the 21st century. Burnham probes arguments for reparations, apologies and truth proceedings that could further recover this history and allow communities to confront it and to reform legal structures tainted by the legacy of Jim Crow. Those interested in race, history and law will find it groundbreaking, illuminating and moving.
“An essential reckoning with America’s history of racial violence.”
— Publishers Weekly, starred review, and selected for the magazine’s Top 10 Books in the Politics & Current Events category of its fall 2022 announcements
“Searing indictment of the all-encompassing violence of Jim Crow and a persuasive case for long-overdue reparations . . . . An indispensable addition to the literature of social justice and civil rights.”
— Kirkus Reviews, starred review
“Uncovers the hidden and unknown victims of Jim Crow violence through detailed research into newspapers, trial testimony, transcripts, and legislation . . . . Readers interested in the long history of the civil rights struggle should definitely read this.”
— Library Journal, starred review
“This meticulously researched history of how lynching shaped Jim Crow and reinforced racial hierarchy is the corrective we all need.”
— Oprah Daily’s Favorite Books of the Year
>> Download the By Hands Now Known tour schedule
For more information on By Hands Now Known, or to interview Margaret Burnham, please contact: Kyle Radler, firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Hands Now Known In the Press
- “2023 Hillman Prize Winners Announced,” (April 25, 2023).
- “Los Angeles Times Announces Winners of 43rd Annual Book Prizes,” Los Angeles Times (April 22, 2023).
- “A Regional Reign of Terror,” The New York Review (April 6, 2023).
- “Rachel Howzell Hall, George Saunders, James Hannaham among L.A. Times Book Prize finalists,” Los Angeles Times (February 22, 2023).
- “Our Favorite Books of the Year,” Oprah Daily (November 28, 2022).
- “The U.S. Thinks ‘It Can’t Happen Here.’ It Already Has,” The New York Times (October 18, 2022).
- Video: “Q&A with Margaret Burnham, "By Hands Now Known",” C-SPAN (October 15, 2022).
- “Noted Lawyer to Speak in Birmingham on Sunday about ‘Jim Crow’s Legal Executioners’,” Birmingham Times (October 15, 2022).
- Video: “History is Lunch: Margaret A. Burnham, "By Hands Now Known: Jim Crow’s Legal Executioners",” History is Lunch Event Hosted by the Mississippi Department of Archives & History (October 12, 2022).
- “Briefly Noted: By Hands Now Known,” The New Yorker (October 3, 2022).
- “Law Professor Unearths Cases of Racial Violence from the Jim Crow Era,” NPR’s “Fresh Air” (September 27, 2022).
- “Jim Crow’s Forgotten History of Homicides,” The New York Times (September 21, 2022).
- “How the Jim Crow South Encouraged Racial Policing by Those With ‘No Legal Authority,” News@Northeastern (September 20, 2022).
- “Chicago Humanities Festival announces fall headliners, including Patti Smith, Jessica Lange and Chelsea Manning,” Chicago Tribune (September 13, 2022).
- “Finalists for the 2022 Kirkus Prize are Revealed,” Kirkus (September 8, 2022).
- “30 Books We Can’t Wait for This Fall,” Los Angeles Times (August 30, 2022).
- “By Hands Now Known: Jim Crow’s Legal Executioners,” Publishers Weekly (August 2022).
- “Writers to Watch: Fall 2022 Nonfiction Debuts,” Publishers Weekly (July 29, 2022)
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