“We must find America’s disappeared, learn their stories and allow them to live in our history.” — Margaret A. Burnham
Renowned legal scholar, civil rights advocate, and former judge Margaret A. Burnham is the founder of Northeastern University School of Law’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project (CRRJ) and author of By Hands Now Known: Jim Crow’s Legal Executioners.
Through CRRJ, Burnham has led teams of law students in investigating acts of racial violence in the Jim Crow era, including hundreds of unsolved murders of Black people among other historical failures of the criminal justice system. The project serves as a resource for scholars, policymakers and organizers involved in initiatives seeking justice for these crimes. Burnham and CRRJ are currently leading an effort to create an archive of historical records, legal documents, video and audio recordings, photos, and other materials, intended to preserve the history of these cases and provide scholars with a robust resource of information on racial violence. Once completed, the archive will “become the most important repository of documents about these cases in the country,” according to Burnham.
Drawing on the extensive database of cases collected by CRRJ, Burnham’s book, By Hands Now Known—winner of the Hillman Prize for Book Journalism and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for History, finalist for the Kirkus Prize, longlisted for the Carnegie Medal, and named one of the Best Books of 2022 by the New Yorker, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, and Oprah Daily—offers a paradigm-shifting investigation of Jim Crow-era violence, the legal apparatus that sustained it, and its enduring legacy. In a series of harrowing cases, spanning from 1920 to 1960, this “essential reckoning with America’s history of racial violence” (Publishers Weekly, starred review) challenges our understanding of the era by exploring the relationship between formal law and background legal norms. From rendition—the legal process by which states make claims to other states for the return of their citizens—to battles over state and federal jurisdiction and the outsize role of local sheriffs in enforcing racial hierarchy, Burnham maps the criminal legal system in the mid-twentieth century South, and traces the unremitting line from slavery to the legal structures of this period—and through to today.
“A work by turns shocking, moving, and thought-provoking. It merits the attention of anyone interested in the historical roots of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and, more recently, Black Lives Matter….By Hands Now Known is one of those rare books that forces us to consider in new ways the nature of our politics and society and the enduring legacy of our troubled past.”—Eric Foner, The New York Review of Books
Burnham began her career at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. In the 1970s, she represented civil rights and political activists, including Angela Davis. In 1977, she became the first African American woman to serve in the Massachusetts judiciary, when she joined the Boston Municipal Court bench as an associate justice. In 1993, South African president Nelson Mandela appointed Professor Burnham to serve on an international human rights commission to investigate alleged human rights violations within the African National Congress. The commission was a precursor to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Burnham is a University Distinguished Professor of Law at Northeastern University, where she has been on faculty since 2002.
Among her impressive accomplishments, Burnham headed a team of outside counsel and law students in a landmark case that settled a federal lawsuit. Professor Burnham’s team accused Franklin County Mississippi law enforcement officials of assisting Klansmen in the kidnapping, torture and murder of two 19-year-olds, Henry Dee and Charles Eddie Moore. CRRJ’s investigations are widely covered in the national press, including a PBS Frontline documentary series, Un(re)solved.
A former fellow of the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe College and Harvard University’s W.E.B. DuBois Institute for Afro-American Studies, Burnham has written extensively on contemporary legal and political issues. In 2016, Burnham was selected for the competitive and prestigious Carnegie Fellows Program. She is among four scholars from across the country appointed by President Biden to serve on the Civil Rights Cold Case Records Review Board, a national initiative charged with reviewing the records of murders and other acts of racially motivated violence that occurred between 1940 and 1979. The board will have the authority to improve access to these records to the public, and possibly redress some of the unresolved crimes.here.