Uncovering the Tragic History of “Racial Homicide” in America

Carnegie fellow uses storytelling to help bring dignity and a measure of justice to the victims and their families

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Founded by 2016 Carnegie fellow Margaret Burnham, the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project addresses harms resulting from anti-civil rights violence though research and remediation. (Photo: Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

One Saturday last August more than 100 people gathered in the Alabama heat to honor the memories of six black men, all from Mobile, who were killed by white people in the 1940s. Largely forgotten by all but a handful of descendants, these men were recognized 70 years after their deaths, owing mostly to the work of the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project (CRRJ), a law clinic and resource center housed at Northeastern University’s School of Law in Boston. The project’s founder and director is Margaret Burnham, a 2016 Andrew Carnegie fellow.

The ‘back of the bus’ was imposed and enforced by guns. An attack could be triggered by nothing at all, but certainly if you exerted your rights, as these men did, you were subject to the risk of violence.

— Margaret Burnham, Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project

Burnham’s work and the work of CRRJ extends the research done on lynchings in the late 19th and early 20th century to what Burnham calls “other forms of racial homicide,” occurring mostly in the American South between 1930 and 1970. Burnham told the gathering in Mobile that state violence and segregation went hand in hand: "The ‘back of the bus’ was imposed and enforced by guns. An attack could be triggered by nothing at all, but certainly if you exerted your rights, as these men did, you were subject to the risk of violence."

The story of Rayfield Davis, one of the men honored in Mobile, is emblematic of many others whose cases the center has documented. Davis died after he invited a white man, Horace Miller, to have a drink after work. Miller took offense that a black person would suggest such a thing, prompting Davis to say that black people would soon get equal rights. By Miller’s own account, he became so enraged that he beat Davis to death.

“Davis died after asserting to a white man that President Truman would improve the lives of African Americans and make their lives better,” Burnham said. “That was a political statement. It was a statement of resistance. It was a statement of dignity and a call for respect. For that, the man to whom he made that statement killed him right there.”

Burnham’s Carnegie project builds on hundreds of such accounts in the CRRJ database as well as on other materials to create a narrative about the way justice for African Americans operated in mid-20th-century America. For example, she says, one chapter will look at kidnapping and try to “dissect the question of why kidnapping was never punished when the victims of kidnapping during this time were African American.”

Burnham came to Northeastern after a long career as a civil rights attorney and judge; she was the first black woman judge in Massachusetts and has been honored as a Living Legend by the Museum of African American History, Boston and Nantucket. She feels fortunate to be able “to define a project like the database and be able to touch on an area and do some digging and create something that wasn’t there before. That’s a gift that scholars have and I’m enjoying it.”

“Americans care about history. It matters. But it is selective. Our aim is to put this history front and center so it can’t ever be ignored.”

— Margaret Burnham, Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project

Burnham sees CRRJ’s work — and the efforts of others such as 2017 Carnegie fellow Monica Muñoz, who is documenting the killing of Mexican migrants along the U.S.-Mexico border — as serving several purposes. One, as the Mobile ceremony dramatized, is to “bring dignity to the lives of the victims and their families.” The center also tries to encourage discussion about the cases in the towns where the killings occurred.

More broadly Burnham believes confronting our past will enrich our understanding of American history. “Americans care about history,” she says. “It matters. But it is selective. Our aim is to put this history front and center so it can’t ever be ignored.”