- Murder on Shades Mountain: The Legal Lynching of Willie Peterson and the Struggle for Justice in Jim Crow Birmingham by Melanie S. Morrison
This book tells the little-known story of Willie Peterson, an African American veteran who was wrongly convicted of murdering two white women (and attempting to murder a third) in Depression-era Birmingham, Alabama. The case mirrors that of the Scottsboro Boys—which occurred only five months earlier in a nearby rural county—in many ways: it involved a black man who was accused of assaulting white women; it galvanized white southern mobs and stoked fears of communism; it became a national cause célèbre; the NAACP and the International Labor Defense (ILD) vied for control; and, of course, a similar miscarriage of justice ultimately prevailed. Yet the differences are also notable: the women were from affluent families; Walter White and the NAACP learned from Scottsboro and ultimately pushed aside the ILD and took charge of Peterson's defense; and amazingly, in the first trial, an all-white jury could not reach a unanimous decision of guilt, resulting in a mistrial. Peterson was, however, found guilty in the second trial and sentenced to death. This sentence prompted years of protest by African Americans and communists that ultimately pushed the governor of Alabama to commute Peterson's sentence to life imprisonment in 1934. Peterson, long riddled by tuberculosis, nevertheless died in prison only six years later.
In casting light on this neglected story, Melanie S. Morrison succeeds admirably in moving the literature beyond Scottsboro, which has garnered the lion's share of historians' attention. Morrison is at her best when she unearths legal records to explain how the criminal justice system was stacked against Peterson. Over the course of twenty-two brief chapters, she documents police officers' malicious interrogation tactics, judges' outright bias and hostility, the power of public pressure to shape legal proceedings, and the ever-important role of money in securing a proper defense. In Morrison's hands, the Jim Crow justice system avoids caricature and emerges as a living, breathing system in which injustice is that much more evident and pernicious.
Yet Murder on Shades Mountain: The Legal Lynching of Willie Peterson and the Struggle for Justice in Jim Crow Birmingham will likely frustrate historians and other scholars reading this journal. The book is a narrative history that rarely pauses to analyze or explain the larger historical significance. The scholarly reader is interested not merely in what happened, but also in why it matters and how it relates to other scholarship. The narrative approach employed here minimizes those discussions and leaves the reader wanting. Furthermore, Morrison—not a historian by training—relies above all on newspapers to weave the story together, making the book a bit light on archival research and secondary sources. Endnotes span only twenty-three pages. The result is that Morrison does not contextualize the Peterson case as fully as she might have or adequately connect it to historiographical debates. She does, near the end of the book, rightly suggest that the Peterson case reveals a longer history of the black civil rights struggle. But that thought is not developed, and the wide literature on that subject is not referenced. [End Page 200]
Still, the book is compelling and beautifully written. Its presentation and subject should appeal to a wide audience. The story has a direct connection to present-day struggles over criminal justice, and it deepens the scholarship on important cases of Jim Crow injustice—and subsequent political protest—in the second quarter of the twentieth century.