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A Lesson in Humility and Justice

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.

Read entire article at The Atlantic