By Hands Now Known: Jim Crow’s Legal Executioners


by Margaret A. Burnham

A Finalist for the 2022 Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction

A paradigm-shifting investigation of Jim Crow–era violence, the legal apparatus that sustained it, and its enduring legacy, from a renowned legal scholar.

If the law cannot protect a person from a lynching, then isn’t lynching the law?

In By Hands Now Known, 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. From rendition, the legal process by which states make claims to other states for the return of their citizens, to battles over state and federal jurisdiction and the outsize role of local sheriffs in enforcing racial hierarchy, Burnham maps the criminal legal system in the mid-twentieth-century South, and traces the unremitting line from slavery to the legal structures of this period and through to today.

Drawing on an extensive database, collected over more than a decade and exceeding 1,000 cases of racial violence, she reveals the true legal system of Jim Crow, and captures the memories of those whose stories have not yet been heard.

Hardcover | 352 pages | W. W. Norton & Company | 2022

Margaret A. Burnham is an American lawyer and academic who is a professor at the Northeastern University School of Law and the founder of the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project. She is a Member of the Civil Rights Cold Case Records Review Board.

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