Last Thursday in Montgomery, Alabama, the Equal Justice Initiative opened its museum dedicated to racial equality, at the heart of which is a profoundly powerful memorial to the more than 4,400 African-Americans who were lynched in this country between the Civil War and World War II. Three days later Melanie Morrison made a visit to Western North Carolina, reminding 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.
Melanie is the author of the newly released Murder on Shades Mountain: The Legal Lynching of Willie Peterson and the Struggle for Justice in Jim Crow Birmingham. She and I first met in the fall of 1976 when we were students at Yale Divinity School. She had just spent three and a half years at Koinonia Partners, an interracial community in Americus, Georgia, that suffered through Klan shootings and a boycott during its early years. Though I didn’t know it then, I was on my way to Sojourners Community. Conversations with Melanie about theology, racism, and intentional community contributed to my decision to leave seminary after my first year and make the move to inner-city Washington, DC.
I’ve known Melanie over the past four decades as a tireless and fearless activist for racial, gender, and disability justice. She largely credits her work as an anti-racism educator to the convictions of her parents. Her father’s awakening to racial injustice came by way of the murders on Shades Mountain.
On August 4, 1931, three young white women were attacked on the secluded, wooded ridge outside Birmingham, Alabama. The account of the only survivor, 18-year-old Nell Williams—who related that she, her sister Augusta, and their friend Jennie Wood had been held captive for four hours and “shot by a Negro”—launched the largest manhunt in the city’s history. A reign of terror was unleashed on Birmingham’s African-American community. Black businesses were set on fire, armed white vigilantes roamed the streets, black men were dragged off of trains and out of their beds, and dozens were detained. At least three were murdered.
The pressure was intense on Nell to identify the killer of her sister and friend. For weeks she rejected scores of suspects paraded before her. And then, on an unusually sweltering day in late September, she pointed to a man on the street and said, “I am sure that is the Negro.” Willie Peterson was 38 years old, a disabled former miner, chronically ill with tuberculosis. Apart from being black, he bore virtually no resemblance to the description Nell had given the police. Despite this fact and his physical frailty, despite eyewitnesses testifying to seeing him elsewhere during the Shades Mountain murders and the doubts of even some officials involved in the case, Willie Peterson was found guilty of murder and sentenced to die.
Truman Morrison, Melanie’s father, was in love with Nell’s younger sister, Genevieve. The only son of an ardent segregationist entrepreneur, he began to feel “torn up inside,” caught between his life of wealth and white privilege and his belief that Willie Peterson was innocent. He had a choice to make. To the shock of those around him, he ended his relationship with Genevieve and committed himself to what became lifelong work against racial injustice.
It’s the sort of choice that all of us with white skin need to make—and keep on making throughout our lives. I’m grateful that Melanie has given us the gift of a poignant and powerful reminder. As she wrote in the introduction to Murder on Shade’s Mountain: “My father believed that racism is a white problem and that he, as a white man, would be held accountable by his Creator for what he did or failed to do to confront, name, and mend this deep wound in the soul of America.”
Though Melanie framed her book around her father, to her credit it is not a story about him. Or about Nell Williams and her family. It is the story of Willie Peterson. It is a detailed, meticulously researched, riveting account of the horrific injustice he suffered.
Murder on Shades Mountain ends, as it begins, with a call to each of us to do our own work. In the afterword, written in the form of a letter to her late father, Melanie states the truth: “The demonization and criminalization of black men remains a national disgrace. Eighty-five years after Willie Peterson was arrested on a Birmingham street corner, innocent black men throughout the nation continue to be racially profiled, stopped and frisked, thrown to the ground, choked, shot, torn from their families, locked behind bars, and sentenced to die…So much work remains to be done.”
Indeed. We need each other, the power of painful memory, and the transformative stories of our lives to keep at it.
Murder on Shades Mountain can be purchased through your local bookstore. Or receive a 30% discount by ordering it directly from Duke University Press and entering code E18SHADE at checkout.