THE DEDICATION this spring of a memorial in Montgomery, Ala., to the more than 4,400 African Americans who were lynched in this country between the Civil War and World War II has brought renewed national attention to a historical outrage. Melanie Morrison’s Murder on Shades Mountain: The Legal Lynching of Willie Peterson and the Struggle for Justice in Jim Crow Birmingham reminds us that not all such acts of terrorism and brutality were carried out by white mobs under trees and the cover of darkness. Some were perpetrated in courtrooms in broad daylight.
This meticulously researched book skillfully weaves glimpses of Morrison’s family history into a riveting account of a horrific injustice. On Aug. 4, 1931, three young white women were attacked on a secluded ridge outside Birmingham, Ala. The only survivor, 18-year-old Nell Williams, related that she, her sister, and their friend had been held captive for four hours and “shot by a Negro.” During the largest search party in the county’s history, armed white vigilantes roamed the streets, black businesses were set on fire, African-American men were dragged off trains and out of their beds, with dozens detained, and at least three were murdered.