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Natalie’s Pick of the Week: By Hands Now Known by Margaret A. Burnham

Renowned legal scholar Margaret A. Burnham, director of Northeastern University’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project, challenges our understanding of the Jim Crow era by exploring the relationship between formal law and background legal norms in a series of harrowing cases from 1920 to 1960 in By hands now known : Jim Crow’s legal executioners / Margaret A. Burnham. Released in September 2022, Margaret Burnham maps the criminal legal system from Slavery, to Jim Crow, through to the legal structures of today.

Burnham focuses on the Jim Crow era and how the rights recognized in the Civil War Amendments were never fully granted to former slaves. Instead, the North all but abandoned the region, leaving local law enforcement free reign to continue to torment, torture, and otherwise dehumanize Black citizens. For the most part, these “legal executioners” have never had to answer for their crimes against the Black man. Instead, legal systems operated to help bury these injustices, and often, protected the perpetrator of violence while further victimizing the victim, by turning them into the criminal.

Burnham writes to fix this wrong. Like an extensive police blotter, Burnham brings to light cases of murder and other inhumanities suffered by Black people in the Jim Crow South, with names, dates, and other facts that had been, until now, erased from the record. For years, government institutions and public guardians tasked with community safety chose to operate as protectors of privilege over humanity. Burnham is hoping to change that by shining a light on the darkness that we pretend doesn’t exist.

You might ask yourself, why is this important? What justice can come from unearthing these skeletons in our closet? For so long we denied the skeletons existed; we claimed they were excised long ago. Recent events have illustrated how the skeletons are there, and always have been. Ignoring them doesn’t seem to work; it has only caused more damage. It’s time we as a nation acknowledge and reckon with these tragedies from our past. By apologizing for past wrongs, we can acknowledge the harm done and finally start to heal.

If you want to read more, consider Stony the road : Reconstruction, white supremacy, and the rise of Jim Crow / Henry Louis Gates, Jr. or I saw death coming : a history of terror and survival in the war against Reconstruction / Kidada E. Williams.

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