Professor Margaret Burnham’s New Book, By Hands Now Known, Challenges Our Understanding of the Jim Crow Era

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By Hands Now Known was a finalist for the Kirkus Prize in nonfiction and has been longlisted for the 2023 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction.

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

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For more information on By Hands Now Known, or to interview Margaret Burnham, please contact: Kyle Radler, kradler@wwnorton.com.

By Hands Now Known In the Press

 

About Northeastern University School of Law

The nation’s leader in experiential legal education since 1968, Northeastern University School of Law offers the longest-running, most extensive experience-based legal education program in the country. Northeastern guarantees its students unparalleled practical legal work experiences through its signature Cooperative Legal Education Program. More than 1,000 employers worldwide in a wide range of legal, government, nonprofit and business organizations participate in the program. With a focus on social justice and innovation, Northeastern University School of Law blends theory and practice, providing students with a unique set of skills and experiences to successfully practice law.

For more information, contact d.feldman@northeastern.edu