In 1931, Willie Peterson was arrested for the attack of three white women in Birmingham, Alabama. He did not match the description that the sole survivor of the attack gave police, other than the fact that he was black. He was convicted and sentenced to death.
Melanie Morrison heard this story a lot as a child. Her father’s hero and mentor, a Presbyterian minister named Henry Edmonds, was a prominent white citizen who doubted Peterson’s guilt and worked to help free him. When Morrison read an article about the Peterson trial two years after her father’s death, she noticed things he had left out, like the reign of terror unleashed on Birmingham’s black community after the crime. She decided to dig deeper.
Host Frank Stasio talks to Morrison about her new book, “Murder on Shades Mountain: The Legal Lynching of Willie Peterson and The Struggle For Justice in Jim Crow Birmingham.” (Duke University Press Books/2018) Morrison will be reading from her book at the Hayti Heritage Center in Durham on Thursday, May 3. She is also giving a talk on Tuesday, May 8 at Scuppernong Books in Greensboro.
What happened after the attack of three white women:
I think it’s important to say that the Jefferson County Sheriff and the Birmingham Police came together, and they deputized 250 armed white men to take part in what became known as the largest manhunt in Jefferson County history. And a reign of terror was unleashed on the black community. It's not hyperbolic to say that every black man leaving Birmingham in the days that followed [the crime], by car, bus, train, or on foot, was suspect. And dozens of black men were arrested, detained, and brought to Birmingham from cities all across the South and as far away as Chicago.
On Willie Peterson, who was convicted of the crime:
Willie Peterson was a former miner, disabled. He hadn't worked for two years. He was on disability, and he was a former veteran, and he was disabled by tuberculosis. At the time of his arrest he weighed 125 pounds. He had no criminal record whatsoever. He couldn't be up for more than a few hours at a time before having to go back to bed and rest. So it was highly improbable that he could have had the physical capacity to commit these crimes.
On how the Willie Peterson trials affected her father, who was a teenager in Birmingham at the time:
This was an awakening for my father who lived in a white enclave and a racially apartheid city. It was an awakening for him in his teenage years to the reality of white supremacy and judicial injustice in Birmingham. And he widened that cracking open that happened in his consciousness.