Murder on Shades Mountain

The Legal Lynching of Willie Peterson and the Struggle for Justice in Jim Crow Birmingham

Book Pages: 288 Illustrations: 20 illustrations Published: March 2018

Activism, African American Studies and Black Diaspora, History > U.S. History

One August night in 1931, on a secluded mountain ridge overlooking Birmingham, Alabama, three young white women were brutally attacked. The sole survivor, Nell Williams, age eighteen, said a black man had held the women captive for four hours before shooting them and disappearing into the woods. That same night, a reign of terror was unleashed on Birmingham's black community: black businesses were set ablaze, posses of armed white men roamed the streets, and dozens of black men were arrested in the largest manhunt in Jefferson County history. Weeks later, Nell identified Willie Peterson as the attacker who killed her sister Augusta and their friend Jennie Wood. With the exception of being black, Peterson bore little resemblance to the description Nell gave the police. An all-white jury convicted Peterson of murder and sentenced him to death.

In Murder on Shades Mountain Melanie S. Morrison tells the gripping and tragic story of the attack and its aftermath—events that shook Birmingham to its core. Having first heard the story from her father—who dated Nell's youngest sister when he was a teenager—Morrison scoured the historical archives and documented the black-led campaigns that sought to overturn Peterson's unjust conviction, spearheaded by the NAACP and the Communist Party. The travesty of justice suffered by Peterson reveals how the judicial system could function as a lynch mob in the Jim Crow South. Murder on Shades Mountain also sheds new light on the struggle for justice in Depression-era Birmingham. This riveting narrative is a testament to the courageous predecessors of present-day movements that demand an end to racial profiling, police brutality, and the criminalization of black men.


(Starred Review) "In this passionate account of Jim Crow–era injustice, educator and activist Morrison exposes how courtrooms 'could function like lynch mobs when the defendant was black.'... Morrison, who is white, shares this painful story with clarity and compassion, emphasizing how much has changed since the 1930s, how much white people need to 'critically interrogate' the past, and how much 'remains to be done' in the fight for justice." — Publishers Weekly

"The author deserves praise for identifying Peterson’s trial as an important precursor to the 1960s civil rights movement. Audiences will be enthralled and angered by this all-too-familiar account of a criminal justice system that was and remains biased against black Americans." — Karl Helicher, Foreword Reviews

"Morrison digs deeply into period newspapers and archives to uncover this story of injustice long overshadowed by the more famous Scottsboro Boys trial. A thoughtful look into a tale of prejudice and stolen justice that will find many readers who are interested in African American history, the early civil rights movement, and Southern history." — Chad E. Statler, Library Journal

"Morrison’s book is an ultimate tribute to a man who is seldom mentioned in the Civil Rights Movement, but was a true civil rights hero and who despite torture and mental cruelty always proclaimed his innocence." — Bill Castanier, Lansing City Pulse

"A straightforward, thoroughly researched nonfiction account of yet another disgraceful episode in Alabama racial history."
  — Don Noble, Tuscaloosa News

"An important and timely book.” — James L. Baggett, Birmingham Watch

“A detailed, meticulously researched, riveting account.” — Joyce Hollyday, Radical Discipleship

“A compelling read. . . . Murder on Shades Mountain is a reminder that ‘the civil rights movement was not born in the 1960s’ and that its work is far from complete.” — Real Deal

Murder on Shades Mountain is an outstanding case study that should find an audience among laypersons and among students at the undergraduate and graduate levels.” — Brent M. S. Campney, Criminal Law and Criminal Justice Books

"The book ends, as it begins, with a call to each of us to do our own work. In the afterword, poignantly written in the form of a letter to her late father, Morrison states the brutal truth: 'The demonization and criminalization of black men remains a national disgrace.' Eighty-seven years after Willie Peterson was targeted on a Birmingham street corner, there is still much work to be done. This book offers inspiration to keep at it." — Joyce Hollyday, Sojourners

"iI shifting attention from Scottsboro's sleepy courthouse square to Birmingham's industrialized and highly stratified terrain, Morrison offers fresh perspective on the structural violence that undergirded white supremacy." — Jason Morgan Ward, Southern Spaces

"Recounted in painstaking detail by Morrison, this near century-old case emerges as a precedent for contemporary discussions of racism in the criminal justice system, reaffirming how firmly rooted racial profiling and the criminalization of blackness are in American culture." — Ladee Hubbard, TLS

"Morrison succeeds admirably in moving the literature beyond Scottsboro, which has garnered the lion’s share of historians’ attention. Morrison is at her best when she unearths legal records to explain how the criminal justice system was stacked against Peterson. . . . In Morrison’s hands, the Jim Crow justice system avoids caricature and emerges as a living, breathing system in which injustice is that much more evident and pernicious. . . . Compelling and beautifully written." — David A. Varel, Journal of Southern History

"[Murder on Shades Mountain's] detailed narrative of one little-known crime and its aftermath is powerful and evocative and offers a revealing window into the workings of white supremacy—one that is even more dramatic in some ways than the story of the Scottsboro Boys. . . . Morrison’s work offers a critical reminder that whites must interrogate all the stories about race that they have inherited, even those of white advocates for racial justice." — Renee Romano, American Historical Review

"Morrison forces the reader to grapple with the precarity of Black life in relation to white supremacist power structures like the criminal justice system.… Murder on Shades Mountain is a crucial text for tracing the genealogy of state-sanctioned anti-Black violence in America." — Denzel Shabazz, Journal of African American History

“I devoured the whole impressive book, often reading late into the night. The ordeal of Willie Peterson in Depression Alabama has until now been a neglected episode in civil rights history. Melanie S. Morrison’s careful, compelling reconstruction of a tragic double murder turned judicial lynching unearths profound and, alas, enduring truths about the ways race and ideology deform human decency as well as justice.” — Diane McWhorter, author of Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution

"With detail not often found in narratives of antiblack violence, Melanie S. Morrison's account of Willie Peterson's officially sanctioned murder—which has almost disappeared from the canon of black struggle—teaches us not only of the destructive power of racism but also of its systemic nature and the efforts long before the so-called 'civil rights era' to resist it. It resonates with the cradle-to-prison pipeline that plagues much of black life today. Well worth reading." — Charles E. Cobb Jr., author of This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible


Availability: In stock
Price: $27.95

Open Access

Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Melanie S. Morrison, founder and executive director of Allies for Change (, is a social justice educator, author, and activist with thirty years' experience designing and facilitating transformational group process. Morrison is author of The Grace of Coming Home: Spirituality, Sexuality, and the Struggle for Justice and her writing has appeared in numerous periodicals. As a keynote speaker at national and regional conferences, she addresses racial, disability, and sexual justice. In 1994 Morrison founded Doing Our Own Work, an antiracism intensive for white people that has attracted hundreds of participants across the country. She has a master of divinity from Yale Divinity School and a Ph.D. from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. Ordained in the United Church of Christ, Morrison pastored congregations in Michigan and the Netherlands. As adjunct faculty, she has taught antiracism seminars at Chicago Theological Seminary and the Methodist Theological School in Ohio. She lives in Okemos, Michigan.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Introduction  1
Part I. Danger in the Magic City
1. August 4, 1931  15
2. A City Beset by Fear  25
3. Reign of Terror in the Black Community  34
4. Fear, Loathing,and Oblivion in the White Community  45
Part II. Trials and Tribulations
5. The Arrest: September 23, 1931  55
6. Attempted Murder  67
7. Grand Jury Testimonies  76
8. The NAACP Comes to Life  85
9. Mounting the Defense  94
10. House of Pain  113
11. "A Temporarily Dethroned Mind"  116
12. "An Outrageous Spectacle of Injustice"  119
13. A Tumultuous Year  122
Part IV. Never Turning Back
14. Staying on the Firing Line  131
15. Charles Hamilton Houston  134
16. A Lynching in Tuscaloosa  142
17. Moving the Case Forward  150
18. No Negroes Allowed  162
19. A Flood of Letters  168
20. A Multitude of Regrets  172
21. Grave Doubts as to His Guilt  178
22. Jim Crow Justice  185
Epilogue. The Community That Kept Faith  193
Afterword. Letter to My Father  197
Acknowledgments  203
Notes  209
Bibliography  233
Index  241
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

Rights and licensing
Additional InformationBack to Top