By Hands Now Known: Jim Crow’s Legal Executioners by Margaret A. Burnham
A little over twenty years ago, the New-York Historical Society mounted “Without Sanctuary,” a remarkable exhibition of photographs of lynchings in the American South. The images of mobs torturing and murdering Black citizens, some widely circulated as souvenir postcards, revealed a depravity that had long been shrouded by historical amnesia. Since then, the roughly 3,500 lynchings that took place between 1880 and the 1950s have received ample public attention, including at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, which opened in 2018. Thanks to a recent outpouring of scholarship, novels, and films, most Americans are also aware that violence was essential to the functioning of slavery. Less widely remembered, however, is the quotidian brutality that claimed many hundreds of Black lives between the end of slavery and the civil rights revolution. The horrors of Black life in the Jim Crow South have not really entered the country’s historical consciousness.
Jim Crow, a shorthand for the more than six-decade-long southern racial order that followed Reconstruction, is usually equated with segregation, but it was far more than that. A comprehensive system of white supremacy, it also included the disenfranchisement of Black voters (thus stripping them of political power), a labor market that relegated African Americans to the lowest-paying jobs, and a code of behavior in which Blacks were required to demonstrate deference in all their interactions with whites.
In the Jim Crow South, for a Black person to step outside norms of behavior established by whites could be a death sentence. Violence could erupt at any time, for any reason, or for no reason at all. The “mundane, largely hidden violence” that loomed over Black life is the subject of Margaret A. Burnham’s new book, By Hands Now Known: Jim Crow’s Legal Executioners, a work by turns shocking, moving, and thought-provoking. It merits the attention of anyone interested in the historical roots of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and, more recently, Black Lives Matter.