DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. In 1955, Joyce Nelson, a 13-year-old Black teenager in Mayflower, Texas, was hanging out with her cousin, listening to music on a cafe jukebox. In an interview decades later, she described what happened.
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JOYCE NELSON: We was all in, having fun, playing music. And my cousin said, do you want to dance?
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NELSON: We heard a loud noise. All of a sudden, he turned my hand loose and fell to the floor. And I heard people saying, they just killed that boy. And I looked down on the floor, and he was laying down there.
DAVIES: Her cousin, 16-year-old John Earl Reese, was shot through the cafe windows by two white men, angry that a school was being built in town for Black kids. That interview is from a documentary about the work of the Northeastern University Law School's Civil Rights & Restorative Justice Project, founded by our guest, Margaret Burnham. The project, co-directed by MIT political science professor Melissa Nobles, has documented racial violence of the Jim Crow era in the United States, often unearthing cases never reported in local media and undocumented in court records. The project has assembled a database of roughly a thousand murders between 1930 and 1955. In nearly all cases, the perpetrators escaped any punishment.
Burnham chronicles some of the most compelling cases and explores the legal and institutional underpinnings of Jim Crow violence in a new book. Margaret Burnham is a professor of law who has worked as a civil rights lawyer, a defense attorney and a judge in Massachusetts. She was also one of five people appointed by President Biden to the Civil Rights Cold Case Review Board, created by Congress to improve public access to records of unsolved, racially motivated crimes. Burnham's new book is "By Hands Now Known: Jim Crow's Legal Executioners." Margaret Burnham, welcome to FRESH AIR.
MARGARET BURNHAM: Thank you, Dave, so pleased to be here.
DAVIES: I got to say, this book is devastating, and there are just so many cases of Black people murdered with impunity, almost no matter what the circumstances. And I'd like you to share one that researchers in your project came up with. This was the case in 1944 of a Black woman in her 60s who was looking at a can of oil in a general store in Donelson (ph), Ga. What happened?
BURNHAM: This woman, as you say, in her 60s, picked up a can. Apparently, the shop owner was upset about something she did in the store because as she left, he followed her outside of the store and killed her, beat her to death with an ax. The gentleman was a young man, but all we knew about this case was what we found out from a letter that was in the NAACP file written by a resident who didn't give her name. We knew nothing about who she was. And our students then began their investigation with that letter.
DAVIES: Right. And did you find anything in local media, anything in court records, anything more about the case?
BURNHAM: Nothing in court records. Our students were able to discover that the victim was a woman named Ali Hunter (ph) and that indeed she was in her mid-60s. We were able to obtain her death certificate, and we were also able to rule out any legal process in Donaldsonville, as far as we know. There was never any prosecution of the killer. The case certainly never reached federal authorities.
DAVIES: So what lesson do you draw from the fact that this horrific crime appears really just in a single letter to the New York office of the NAACP, didn't make the papers, didn't make the local justice system?
BURNHAM: Well, Dave, we started this project because we knew there was much more to be discovered about the Jim Crow period and about the ways in which violence structured and protected Jim Crow. And we knew that some cases were known. We knew that a lot had been written about Jim Crow. But it became pretty apparent to us quite quickly that there were hundreds of cases, very much like Ali Hunter's, that just disappeared into thin air. And, you know, Ali Hunter's story is typical in that it reflects the consequences of stepping across, sometimes very visible and sometimes not so visible, Jim Crow lines of violating Jim Crow norms and manners, as it were. We know nothing about what it was that upset the man who murdered Ali Hunter. All we know that she did something to upset this man, which ended up in her very violent death after a fairly long life in this small town.
DAVIES: In many cases, small infractions, people suffered, you know, capital punishment for it at the hands of a citizen who went unpunished. In 2007, you and Melissa Nobles, this MIT professor, set out on this journey to research these cases. Tell us kind of how it works. Who does the research?
BURNHAM: So the research is done by students at our university, Northeastern University, at our law school and at our school of journalism, as well as students from across the country who join the project for various periods of time. We also work closely with Southern University Law Center in New Orleans. We also have a historian who works very closely with us in Washington, D.C., and who digs up the records now stored at the National Archives and at the Library of Congress so that we're able to fill out these files. With respect to the Ali Hunter, for example, our historian in Washington would look to see if there were any records relevant to her case. He looked and found none. But he does find records of hundreds of other cases.
And then, of course, the newspapers themselves are original sources of information about the cases that are included in our archive. Our archive is defined by - geographically. We've looked at 11 states of the former Confederacy, and we've looked at cases from 1930 through 1954. So we've chosen the date 1930 because the other scholars have looked at lynching cases from the late 1800s through 1930. And 1954 because that marks the beginning - traditional, conventional beginning of the civil rights movement and also because the cases from that point forward were far more publicized than this black hole that we're looking at, 1930 to 1954 - through 1954.
DAVIES: And, of course, the students who did this research, they couldn't just rely on the internet. They traveled to these communities and tracked down relatives. The case that we just heard about in the introduction of John Earl Reese, shot to death in this little town in East Texas, what did your researchers find out about that case?
BURNHAM: Our researchers traveled to Texas to interview Joyce Nelson, who was with her cousin when he was killed. They interviewed folks around that community to get oral history, the history that, you know, remains in the memory of those who experience these events and who have really never had the opportunity to talk about them. So this project gave them an opportunity to return to these cases and to share their memories but also to obtain from us the documents that would fill out holes in their memories of what transpired. In this case, we traveled with our students to Travis County, met with community members, met with public officials there and brought these communities, the public officials, together with the community, to commemorate the memory of John Earl Reese.
DAVIES: You know, one of the things that was striking as I read about this case was that the relatives of John Earl Reese, who was killed - and some of whom were actually shot themselves, as in were wounded in the gunfire - didn't talk much about it to their descendants. And I wonder how much that had to do with the fact that in a small town like that, the perpetrators were known and had family members that you would see, interact with, might even work for.
BURNHAM: I think that two things are true here. The practice in the - in African American communities is really to bury these things, not to talk to your relatives or to your kids about what transpired, but simply to move on. And secondly, yes, these were small towns in which neighbors bumped into each other, white and Black, all the time. The descendants of the perpetrators lived together side by side with the descendants of the victims unless the victims, which often happened, were forced to pick up and move.
So we often found that in addition to a murder, banishment was what was imposed on the remaining family members. So this becomes also part of the Great Migration. People move to get away from the violence. And that's another story that we tell - that we think the archive tells and that I try to tell in our book, is that these are interrelated, interconnected phenomena, the development of African American communities in the North as connected with their roots in the South, and the affect and relationship between migration and violence.
DAVIES: And in the case of John Earl Reese, who was shot in this incident, do we know - what happened? Was there any punishment?
BURNHAM: Yes. In that case, unlike most of the cases in our archive, there was, in fact, a trial. And there was, in fact, the legal proceeding that resulted in his conviction. And he was sentenced to a sentence that was ultimately suspended. So he spent very little, if any, time in jail for that murder.
DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Margaret Burnham. She is a professor of law at Northeastern University. Her new book is "By Hands Now Known: Jim Crow's Legal Executioner." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Margaret Burnham, a professor of law at Northeastern University and founder of the Civil Rights Restorative Justice Project, which researches cases of racial violence in the Jim Crow era. Her new book is "By Hands Now Known: Jim Crow's Legal Executioners."
You know, you write about incidents on buses throughout the South. And, you know, everybody knows about Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat and her role in the Montgomery bus boycott. But you write that buses were a big issue for decades and that there were a lot of cases of resistance to segregation in public transportation. You know, it's interesting because unlike some aspects of Jim Crow, there's a white bathroom and a bathroom marked for Negroes or water fountains. In a bus, the color line is fluid depending on the mix of Black and white passengers. Did that mean essentially that white bus drivers were enforcers of segregation?
BURNHAM: Yes. And first of all, this this varied from town to town. So in some towns, there was what was called the color board that would be moved around the bus, depending on the white population and the Black population in the bus. In other towns, the separation between the white area and the Black area was more permanent. But in any event, whether Black people sat in the back of the bus or whether they transgressed and sat in the front of the bus was a rule that had to be enforced by bus drivers. So it turns bus drivers into - essentially into police.
And in order to - not to put too fine a point on this - in many of these jurisdictions, bus drivers, because they had to police the racial space on the bus, were armed with weapons. And so many of the cases that preceded Rosa Parks' courageous stand in Montgomery involved African Americans who would defy the color line on the bus and who were shot and killed as a consequence by bus drivers - sometimes by police officers called by bus drivers, but often by bus drivers themselves. So the obvious tension represented by the segregation in the bus resulted in a good deal of violence.
DAVIES: Right. Now, of course, during World War II, you had Black soldiers who were brought into the United States Army and would often ride buses in uniform, sometimes coming to visit hometowns, often near military bases where, you know, because they had grown up quickly, buses could get crowded and, you know, might be more likely to result in conflict between white and Black passengers or between passengers and a driver. There was one case that grew out of a conflict like that - Henry Williams, who was at a base in Mobile, Ala. Was this the one that you recall?
BURNHAM: Yes. So in this case, Henry Williams got on a bus, and he was late to - or thought he might be late and might not be able to meet his curfew at his base. The bus driver had stopped to talk to a neighbor or a friend. And Henry Williams quite innocently said to the bus driver, are we planning to move on, and said to him, I've got a curfew to make. So enraged was the bus driver that he chased Henry Williams, who was carrying his laundry, which he had done in town, off the bus, shot him and killed him.
DAVIES: And in this case, a boycott arose, right? The people began walking and not taking the buses in protest of this.
BURNHAM: A boycott movement was organized. It never got off the ground because in this case, the NAACP was in charge of an effort to get the bus company to make some changes on the buses. And when that happened, the boycott was called off. But certainly, in many of these instances in the 1930s, 1940s, people got together - riders got together and determined how best to protest these intolerable conditions on the buses. So this long predates the famous Montgomery bus boycott movement that is so well - and rightly so - so well-known by most Americans.
DAVIES: Right. And I think in that case, in Mobile, Ala., the bus company agreed to disarm its bus drivers.
BURNHAM: That's exactly what happened there. And once that occurred, things returned to so-called normal. The segregated buses remained, but bus drivers could no longer be the utterly lethal force that they had been before, when they were armed. Although I will say that bus drivers used all kinds of weapons, not just guns, to assault their Black passengers when they thought they were getting out of line. And this was not limited to men. Women as well were assaulted by bus drivers, by - with flashlights or with - you know, with tools, if they were seen to be violating, in any way, the racial propriety that the bus drivers thought was appropriate in their territory, which at that point was the bus.
DAVIES: You write that, you know, people know of Rosa Parks and of organized resistance, but you say that the resistance of individual Black women was extraordinary. Tell us what you learned about that.
BURNHAM: I learned much of this from a file buried in the War Department's files at NARA.
DAVIES: NARA being the National Archives and Records and...
BURNHAM: Yes, the National Archives. So I came across this file in my research. It's called the Negro Transportation File. And what that file reveals is the sometimes quiet, sometimes not so quiet, resistance of African American women and the consequences of that resistance. So, you know, resistance can be quite formal - petitions, boycotts, that sort of thing that we all know about. But the informal, less organized resistance of African American women was quite remarkable, as revealed by this Negro Transportation File. They would, you know, form a collectivity, as it were, in the back of the bus. They'd talk about the white riders in the front of the bus. They would sass the bus driver. They would curse the bus driver.
They had to use these buses because they were traveling from their communities to the white communities where they worked. And so this kind of subterranean resistance, as it were, is less documented, but the government itself provides a source for us to review how African American women protested the segregatory conditions long before Rosa Parks took her stand.
DAVIES: I wanted to talk about what the federal government did or didn't do about the violence. You know, your database has over a thousand murders or roughly a thousand murders between 1930 and 1955, and, you know, in case after case, local police wouldn't - you know, would say that the Black victim, you know, had a gun or reached for a gun or presented a threat, and either there would be no prosecution or an all-white jury would acquit. And the question that you explore here is, where was the federal government? And, you know, you're a lawyer and a legal scholar, and laws are often ignored, but you note that there were federal laws in place that would have made a difference had they been used. You want to just briefly explain what those laws were?
BURNHAM: There were two laws passed in the - during the Reconstruction period that were specifically designed to address anti-Black violence. These laws, as I say, they date from 1870. And one of them applied to private citizens who engaged in acts of violence and conspiratorial acts of violence, and the other addressed state actors, like sheriffs or police officers, who engaged in acts of violence that deprived an individual of their constitutional rights.
These laws lay fallow until the 1940s, when the Justice Department finally - there were very - maybe two or three cases between 1870, when the laws were adopted, and the 1940s. It wasn't until 1939, Dave, that the Justice Department even had a locale, a place in the department, that would focus on the enforcement of these laws. And that was the civil rights unit that began in 1939. And of course, they brushed off these laws to see how they could be used to address the violence that was endemic in the South.
DAVIES: We're going to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Margaret Burnham. She is a professor of law at Northeastern University. Her new book is "By Hands Now Known: Jim Crow's Legal Executioners." She'll be back to talk more after a short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies. And we're speaking with Northeastern University law professor Margaret Burnham. Her new book chronicles many cases of racial violence, including murders, committed in the Jim Crow era that were unpunished and often unreported in local media and undocumented in court records. Burnham and her research partner, MIT political scientist Melissa Nobles, direct the Civil Rights Restorative Justice Project, which conducts interviews and collects documents about those cases. Burnham is also a presidential appointee to the Civil Rights Cold Case Review Board. Her new book is "By Hands Now Known: Jim Crow's Legal Executioners."
People may know that the federal criminal justice system is regionally based. There are regional U.S. attorneys who have great discretion. They're appointed by the president. And they decide whether or not to prosecute cases. And you write about one of them in Macon County, Ala. The prosecutor's name was Edward Burns Parker, was there for decades. One particularly egregious case, the victim was named Walter Gunn. And he did take it. If you want to, just tell us a bit about this story.
BURNHAM: Yeah. So this is the - Walter Gunn lived in Tuskegee. And for some reason, he crossed the sheriff. And long story short, the sheriff comes to his house with a deputy and, in front of his wife and children, shoots Walter Gunn. He dies. The sheriff was a - in some ways, he was a, you know, non-discrimination abuser. He abused white prisoners as well as Black prisoners. Although, obviously, the Black community felt the full brunt of his brutality. The prosecutor takes this case on. And he prosecutes the murder not just - the federal prosecutor prosecutes the murder not just of Gunn, but of several other brutality cases that he lays at the feet of this sheriff. That courtroom was filled with 300 police officers from across the state of Alabama. And, of course, the federal prosecutor loses the case. He has to go home.
DAVIES: To be clear, we're talking about police officers in support of the defendant who was accused of killing him, right? They're not there to see justice done. They're there to see their fellow officer protected.
BURNHAM: Of course. They are there to say to this prosecutor, if you want to continue your legal practice as a federal prosecutor, this can't happen. And it doesn't happen. And I document in the book several other cases in which the federal government in Washington - the DOJ in Washington is writing to Parker and saying, please, take on this case. And Parker had gotten beaten - so badly beaten in that one case that he took on that he took on no other cases in the middle district of Alabama. That becomes a violence-free area for sheriffs and police officers because they know there will be no consequences. At one point, a prosecutor in Washington - a DOJ prosecutor in Washington writes in the file, Parker will not move on this case, closed - over and over and over again.
DAVIES: Yeah. And in that case of the killing of Walter Gun, I mean, you note that there were a lot of credible witnesses and that there's plenty of evidence that the sheriff, Edwin Edwards (ph), actually then went and beat up witnesses so that they would not be in a position to testify. Despite all of that, the, you know, white jury returns an acquittal. On that subject, why were Blacks not on juries then? What were the rules then? These were federal juries, right?
BURNHAM: These were federal juries. And the rule that Blacks had a constitutional right to serve on juries was established in the 19th century. But it was not enforced. And this is because the jury venire would exclude African Americans. Some of these venires were based on voting rolls. And as you know, Blacks were disenfranchised during this period of time. So even though, in law, African Americans had a right to serve on juries, it wasn't really until the late 1950s that you get any sizable number of African Americans serving on juries across the South, both federal and state.
DAVIES: Right. So it was hard even in a federal courtroom to get a white convicted of killing a Black. There's also the question of the investigation. I mean, the FBI was, you know, a federally based law enforcement service led by J. Edgar Hoover at the time. What was their role in these cases?
BURNHAM: The FBI agents who handled these cases were local people. And they were - obviously grew up in these Jim Crow environments and bought into Jim Crow. So they were much more prone to assume that the victims of these crimes had brought it on themselves in some way. And this was just the general ideology of the period, that African Americans were - they were violent. They were uncontrollable. And Jim Crow was necessary in order to keep them under control.
DAVIES: One of the things you write in this book is that there was a lot more resistance among Black citizens to these offences than is generally known. Do you want to just explain that a bit, maybe give us an example?
BURNHAM: Let me tell you a little bit about the case of Captain Butler. Alabama, 1940s, right outside of Birmingham - Captain Butler was a coal miner. And he was a union organizer. And he was - fell into the purview of the owners of the mine, who despised the union. And so, you know, one thing led to another. And he was shot and killed by two security guards for the mining company. This was in the 1940s. Three thousand miners staged a wildcat strike to protest the murder of Captain Butler. These were white miners and Black miners who just left the mines en masse to protest that murder. So there was resistance that is - you know, again, is buried in these files, is not well-known. We concentrate so much, Dave, on the 1954, 1967 civil rights movement that has been so well-documented. But the forebear of that movement, the processes, resistance processes, that led to the activity in the 1950s and 1960s really starts in the 1930s and 1940s. And these files are revelatory in what they show about the nature, robust nature, and the continuity of Black resistance over these years.
DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you. We're going to take another break here. We are speaking with Margaret Burnham. She's professor of law at Northeastern University. Her new book is "By Hands Now Known: Jim Crow's Legal Executioners." We'll continue our conversation after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Margaret Burnham, a professor of law at Northeastern University and founder of the Civil Rights Restorative Justice Project, which researches cases of racial violence in the Jim Crow era. Her new book is "By Hands Now Known: Jim Crow's Legal Executioners."
You know, you write about restorative justice and reparations in connection with these crimes because you do all this research. And then, the question is, so what do we do about it? And, you know, the crimes are decades old. And, you know, victims, of course, aren't around, and their immediate relatives are aged or are already gone. The perpetrators often also are deceased. So what does justice look like all these years later? What does the project try to do here?
BURNHAM: So there are several reasons why we've collected this material. You may recall that when the killings occurred - the racial killings occurred in the Buffalo area, the newspapers went back, and they traced the history of racial violence in Buffalo just to show the ways in which what sometimes is referred to as the new Jim Crow are related to the old Jim Crow. We don't really know enough about the old Jim Crow to be able to draw the lines from, you know, one epoch to the next.
And so what our research does is it surfaces the modalities of violence, the methods of resistance, in the old Jim Crow and also shows not just the continuities, but perhaps particularly importantly, the discontinuities between our time and their time. And so as far as repair is concerned, one of our objectives is to allow communities, the local communities, to have access to these documents and to make of them what they will, to figure out ways of incorporating these documents and what they tell us about the history into their local history in whatever ways journalists, community activists, schools will find useful.
DAVIES: You know, there was the case that we began our conversation with of John Earl Reese, this young man who was shot in a little town in East Texas when some two white guys who were angry about a Black school being built had fired randomly into this cafe. And the researcher for your project made some effort to bring people together. What happened in that case?
BURNHAM: In that case, we had a day of celebration and commemoration in East Texas where we brought together everyone who had something to say about the case and a lot of people who knew nothing about it but were there to learn. We deposited all the records that we had collected in the local library, and we had an event in the library with young people so that they could recall not just the murder of John Earl Reese, but the circumstances, the fight around schools that led ultimately to his murder. So these cases, they may be in the archives in Washington, but they deserve to be in the local communities where the events took place. In that case as well, our researcher was able to amend the death certificate that did not record John Earl Reese's death as a murder and make it clear in the official record that this case was indeed a homicide.
DAVIES: Right. It had been described as accidental, I believe, in the death certificate.
BURNHAM: It had been.
DAVIES: And then, there was a road sign put up in his honor - right? - naming a piece of the highway for John Earl Reese.
BURNHAM: Yes, there is a John Earl Reese Road in that town.
DAVIES: You said earlier that you think that if ever there was a case for real reparations, it would be examples like these where there's an identifiable family that suffered a horrible loss. Are there any cases where financial reparations have occurred or have gotten any momentum?
BURNHAM: We found no cases where there had been financial reparations, but clearly, that's got to come. So we've engaged in these symbolic efforts to recognize the victims like John Earl Reece and Ollie Hunter and others.
DAVIES: You know, I have to say to our listeners, I mean, this is a remarkable book, and there are so many appalling cases that are detailed. But it's not just a trail of tears because, you know, there's real insight and information about why things, you know, were as they were and are as they are. But one of the things that occurred to me as I read it was, you know, there are - you know, racism and discrimination takes many forms. I mean, there are microaggressions in workplaces, and there is discrimination in housing and employment and, you know, people that resent those who speak differently or like different music.
But when you look at some of the savagery that is exhibited in these acts - I mean, people bludgeoned to death, dragged from cars, shot, left by roadsides - I just wonder if you ever think about the state of mind it would require to embrace that treatment, to commit it, for jury members to acquit those accused of it no matter what, for leading citizens to, you know, tolerate and support it. What's the state of mind that permits somebody to be - to treat other human beings that way?
BURNHAM: I simply would, you know, call it racism as the state of mind, the racism, the - you know, essentially the idea that African Americans are subhuman, are not like you, are different from you, are a different species and therefore can be beaten, kidnapped, left on the road to die, made to, you know, run naked in front of bullets. This kind of treatment is - you know, that's essentially what it is. We've seen it around the world, and we see it here in our own country in these cases.
And not only is it the racism that I think is surfaced by these cases - brutal racism that's surfaced by these cases - but, as well, the cases tell the story of a region that was unlike any other, that when you have these states where you have a polity that is run exclusively by one race, then anything can be done to people who are not of that race. And that's what happened here. These were completely authoritarian states - and here I use states in the Alabama sense - within a larger purported democratic polity. And so while FDR is talking about the four freedoms, Alabama is still living as if it were a few years out of slavery. Disenfranchisement - you know, all of it is connected. So when, you know, people think about Jim Crow, they think about, as you said at the beginning of our conversation, the white water fountain and the Black water fountain. It's deeper than that. It's a basic inhumanity captured today in the phrase Black Lives Matter.
DAVIES: Before I let you go, I want to just ask you a bit about the Civil Rights Cold Case Review Board. You were one of five presidential appointees to this board. And this is based on the Cold Case Records Collection Act. Just tell us about this law, what the intent is here, what you do.
BURNHAM: The intent really is to make records pertaining to violence against African Americans and other deprivations of civil rights records, federal records, more readily available so that researchers and others who want to document these events, journalists, community folks, civil rights activists who want to know about and document and study these events will not have to go through the arduous process required by the Freedom of Information Act. So we will review these records held by NARA and render them publicly available as quickly as we can.
DAVIES: Just give us a bit of a sense of what it was like for you to learn new information about these cases, to come across these documents that were so revelatory of these atrocities long forgotten.
BURNHAM: Well, you know, Dave, I've been a civil rights activist and a civil rights scholar and a legal scholar for many, many years, and yet when I come across a case like the Ollie Hunter case, the woman who was killed in Georgia because she picked up a can in the wrong way or maybe sassed the shop owner, I am just amazed at how much of our history we were simply not aware of, how much of our history has been buried and has yet to be unearthed and digested. And that happened over and over and over again as my students would bring me new cases, new horrors. It was just such an eye-opener to realize what's in those files and what needs to be shared with the broader American public, which is why we created the archive.
DAVIES: Well, Margaret Burnham, thank you so much for speaking with us.
BURNHAM: Thank you very much for having me, Dave. I've enjoyed it.
DAVIES: Margaret Burnham is a professor of law at Northeastern University and founder of the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project. Her new book is "By Hands Now Known: Jim Crow's Legal Executioners."
Coming up, David BIANCULLI reviews the new documentary "11 Minutes" about the mass shooting at a concert in Las Vegas that took place almost five years ago. This is FRESH AIR.
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