|Author Melanie S. Morrison|
Later that night, the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department and the Birmingham police deputized 250 white men for what became the largest manhunt in Jefferson County. Dozens of black men were arrested and detained as far away as Chicago. Weeks later, Nell Williams identified Willie Peterson as the assailant. With the exception of being black, Peterson bore little resemblance to the description Nell had given the police. Peterson was convicted of murder and sentenced to die in the electric chair.
I first heard this Shades Mountain story from my father who was a teenager living in the prosperous suburb of Mountain Brook when the murders occurred. These events proved to be a momentous turning point in my father’s young life, awakening him to the gross injustice that black people suffered in Jim Crow Birmingham. For many years, I retold the Shades Mountain story just as it was handed down to me. It was one way of accounting for the legacy of antiracist activism I inherited from my father. I have always known that my work as an antiracist educator was seeded by the stories my father told and the life he modeled for me. He became a pastor, but the work of dismantling racism was his deepest calling.
Two years after my father’s death in 2006, I read An Enduring Ministry, a biography of my father’s pastor and mentor, Henry Morris Edmonds, written by Marvin Whiting, former head archivist at the Birmingham Public Library. When I came upon six pages of single-spaced narrative in a footnote, all of it pertaining to the Willie Peterson case, I felt a rush of adrenaline akin to what archaeologists must feel when they unearth the precious remnants of an ancient city. Here in print were details of the incident that rocked Birmingham and proved to be so formative in my father’s young life. Whiting stated that he initially intended to include a detailed account of “this largely ignored event in Birmingham history” in the main text, but space and balance had prevented it.
Curious as to why a case of this magnitude had been largely ignored, I launched an online search for other books and articles about the Willie Peterson case. I was surprised at how little I found, in contrast to the preponderance of literature about the Scottsboro trials. More significant still, these sources revealed aspects of the Shades Mountain story that my father had not told us. He never mentioned that white vigilantes bombed black-owned businesses and fired shots at a group of black people who stood peacefully talking on a Birmingham street corner. My father did not tell us that the national NAACP and the Communist Party launched campaigns in defense of Willie Peterson. Nor did he mention that Willie Peterson’s neighbors stepped forward to testify on his behalf despite threats that their homes would be burned to the ground.
I doubt that my father forgot those parts of the story or chose to keep them from us. I suspect he never knew those things as a teenager living in his insular white enclave of Mountain Brook. Discovering these gaping holes in my father’s story, I became intensely curious about what else I might unearth were I to undertake a serious and sustained study of this case. In November 2010, I made my first field trip to Birmingham, compelled to learn more about the Williams/Wood murders and the organizations that sought to free Willie Peterson. I was driven as much by what my father did not tell me as by what he did.
During that first visit to Birmingham, spending time in the Birmingham Public Library Archives and seeking out people who might know about the murders, two things dawned on me with great force. First, I felt even more compelled to research and write about this extraordinary case. Second, I wished that I had begun this journey twenty years earlier. Almost eighty years had passed since the attack on Shades Mountain, and it was no longer possible to find and interview people who were old enough in 1931 to remember that event or its significance.
On numerous trips to Birmingham and other cities that housed archival materials, I sought to recover every newspaper article, editorial, letter, trial transcript, city directory, sermon, photograph, census record, map, and manuscript collection of the organizations related to this case. From the start, I resolved to write a historical narrative that would be true to primary sources and accessible to a wide range of readers. I vowed to resist the temptation to cross the line into fiction when writing about the thoughts and feelings of people in this book. Every quote in my book, unless otherwise indicated, can be traced back to a historical document such as a trial transcript or newspaper article.
Eight years ago, I set out on a journey to learn everything I could about the murders on Shades Mountain, the fate of Willie Peterson, and the struggle for racial justice in Jim Crow Birmingham. The more sources I discovered, the more convinced I became that this story has much to teach us about the social forces at play in Depression-era Birmingham and the courageous predecessors of present-day movements that demand an end to racial profiling, police brutality, and the criminalization of black men.
Murder on Shades Mountain: The Legal Lynching of Willie Peterson and the Struggle for Justice in Jim Crow Birmingham was published in March 2018 by Duke University Press.
Melanie S. Morrison is founder and executive director of Allies for Change. She has a Master of Divinity from Yale Divinity School and a PhD from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. She is the author of The Grace of Coming Home: Spirituality, Sexuality, and the Struggle for Justice and her writing has appeared in numerous periodicals.
Melanie Morrison will be at the Avondale Regional Branch Library on Tuesday, April 24, 6:00 p.m., for a talk and book signing for Murder on Shades Mountain. The event is free and open to the public, and copies of the book will be available for purchase at the event for $26.95. For questions contact Jim Baggett at email@example.com or 205-226-3631.