Last weekend, I visited Nashville to serve on a panel for the Southern Festival of Books. I appeared with Brandon Byrd, a history professor at Vanderbilt University, and the Northeastern University law professor Margaret Burnham, whose book By Hands Now Known: Jim Crow’s Legal Executioners was released last month. Burnham’s book traces the tight connection between the legal order and racial violence during Jim Crow with a particular focus on the period from the 1930s to the 1950s. Rather than describing racial violence as extralegal—or outside the law yet passively allowed, as many historians of lynching have done—Burnham demonstrates that legal institutions were central to sustaining, extending, and legitimizing the violence, at both the local and national levels.
Burnham inherited a commitment to justice. She was born in Birmingham, Alabama, to Louis and Dorothy Burnham, both of whom were well-known and long-standing organizers. Her father was the editor of the Black, leftist, New York–based Freedom newspaper in the 1950s, and I wrote a bit about his mentorship of Lorraine Hansberry, who worked for him at Freedom, in my biography of the playwright.
I’ve known who Margaret Burnham is, and admired her, for as long as I can remember. When I was a kid in Massachusetts, I knew of her as the first Black woman judge in the state’s history; she served on the Boston Municipal Court from 1977 to 1982. In the mid-1960s, Burnham was a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and I associated her with the community of former SNCC organizers who had settled in the Boston area as graduate students, academics, and social activists. After her student organizing, Burnham attended law school and would defend her childhood friend Angela Davis in Davis’s 1970 capital trial.
For the past 22 years, Burnham has served on the faculty of the Northeastern University School of Law. The common right-wing story that universities are hotbeds of radical leftists is demonstrably false, but it is the case that a significant number of people who devoted their intellectual energy and abundant labors to the cause of social justice in the 1960s and ’70s ultimately became scholars and educators. And this makes sense. To transform the society, it was necessary to understand it.
Study was essential to the Black-freedom movement. From the early-20th-century Atlanta University and Tuskegee Institute studies of lynching to the study groups of the 1960s that read Frantz Fanon and W. E. B. Du Bois, Black-freedom dreams were pursued in significant part through serious academic inquiry.
Burnham stands in that tradition. At Northeastern, Burnham established the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project in 2007. Co-directed by Burnham and Rose Zoltek-Jick, the CRRJ supports restorative-justice projects of various sorts. The co-directors also have created the CRRJ Burnham-Nobles digital archive, which is available for public use and has documented, identified, and classified thousands of anti-Black killings over the mid-20th-century in the United States, including but not limited to lynchings. This archive will become an indispensable tool for efforts to remediate and repair the history of racial injustice in United States history. It will also be an important source for researchers who seek to describe the architecture and impact of Jim Crow.
In our discussion last week, Burnham described how she had traveled to various locales for more than a decade, often bringing her students with her, in order to pursue fact-finding for the archive. This work included communicating with the descendants of those who had been the victims of racist murders.
At one particularly pointed moment in our conversation, an audience member described how she had a family member who had been lynched, yet no one had recorded this person’s name anywhere. All that remained was the wound. Professor Burnham’s response was profound: She said that we have a responsibility to unearth, record, and memorialize these deaths. So much of the impulse of the work I do is inspired by the example that Burnham and others have made of their lives, driven by the belief that we are responsible for both tending to the past and building our futures.
I had another meaningful interaction in Nashville, as well. The subject was a 40-year-old, tattooed white man who provided me with airport transportation, and who I learned shared my astrological sign and many of my dietary habits. He told me that his time in the Navy had made him start questioning all of his assumptions about other people.
The man described how he’d been raised by “regular Christian folks” in rural Tennessee, then had traveled all over the Middle East with the military. At one point in our conversation he said, “They say Jesus was from over there. Well, I met a lot of Arabic folks, and ain’t none of ’em named Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Somebody lied.” We laughed together, loud belly laughs. His was a characteristic southern quip, a clever play on language and a jab at the literal biblical interpretations that are so popular in the Bible Belt. But he followed up on a serious note, saying, “So I realized, after I seen so much I never seen before, that you gotta read books. But you can’t just read one book. None of ’em tell the whole story.”
Truer words were never spoken. Interpretation of the world demands more than one account. Understanding the place we live in should be a lifelong commitment. For example, as Professor Burnham described how much of Jim Crow racial violence wasn’t merely tantamount to lynching, but was aided and abetted by legal officers in northern states, it became clear that she is insisting that we give greater precision to the description of what Jim Crow was and how much it shaped the ways we live now.
Even though I’ve spent over half of my 50 years studying this history, Burnham’s book is teaching me new things. I’m grateful for knowing more, and being aware of how much I don’t know. Intellectual humility is the primary tool of discovery.