Morrison spoke candidly to the crowd regarding her father’s social justice narrative, which often placed white activists at its center. Photo by Kat Bell
“‘Murder on Shades Mountain’ is a book about many things. It is about a historical event in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1931, but it is also about the culture and society that made that event possible, or perhaps I should say, inevitable,” commented UM professor Dr. Eric Vaccarella, referencing the writing of the latest speaker in the Hallie Farmer lecture series, Dr. Melanie Morrison.
“It is also about how those events of nearly 90 years ago resonate in today’s world. Furthermore, it is a personal story about Melanie Morrison’s father and how Willie Peterson’s tragic story intersected with his life, and how his life in turn influenced her own.”
On the night of March 12, a group of Montevallo students, faculty and community members gathered in LeBaron Recital Hall to hear Morrison speak. As an author, activist and self-titled “anti-oppression educator,” she retold the soul-stirring story of Willie Peterson, an older Black man who died in jail over a murder that he was likely too frail to commit.
This narration, entitled “Researching Injustice: Telling the Story of Legal Lynching in Jim Crow Birmingham,” began when three white women were attacked on Shades Mountain after an outing in southeast Birmingham.
The sole survivor — who was 18-years-old at the time — claimed that as they were returning to their car, a “negro wielding a gun” jumped on the side of the vehicle and held the women captive for 4 hours. Reportedly, this man lectured them about the “evils of the white race” before shooting them and disappearing into the woods.
That night, 240 white men were deputized at the start of one of the largest manhunts in State history.
Because every Black man was suspect during this period, many of them were arrested and detained in areas as far away as Chicago. White citizens began masquerading as police to murder Black men, unleashing a “reign of terror” on top of the prevailing Jim Crow injustice.
These events were, as Morrison stated, the pretext for arresting anyone that the white elite considered trouble.
Six weeks later, the survivor pointed Peterson out as he was walking down the road. All she had to say was “that’s him,” and the man was interrogated by her family and held at gunpoint until the police arrived.
Although Peterson was unemployed, disabled, had no criminal record and bore no resemblance to the description of the murderer beyond his race, he was indicted and jailed immediately.
As a result, the manhunt grew from 240 people to 1,500, and, eventually, Peterson was shot during questioning. He lived just long enough to stand trial in two corrupt courts—an “extrajudicial lynching.”
The activism from the Black community, including the NAACP and its allies from the Communist Party, was extremely pronounced. However, Morrison vividly remembered her father describing his pastor as being one of the most influential people in this movement; according to him, this push for Peterson’s freedom opened his eyes, and it was one of the reasons for his eventual interest in Black writers and activists.
The memory that was “intended to be an indictment of white supremacy” only replicated it. In her father’s centering of white people and ignorance toward white vigilante violence, he made Black friends, neighbors and organizations seem largely unimportant.
Although Peterson’s story prompted her father’s activism and then hers, she was aware of the legacies that stories like this can leave—ones that embrace the myth of the white savior.
In her afterward, she wrote the following:
“We who are white must always critically interrogate the stories we have inherited from our forebearers, even those that have inspired our passion for justice, because white Americans remain largely ignorant about the manifold organizations, movements and uprisings led by people of color that resisted racism in every region and every era of this nation’s history.”
“The white savior myth not only masks the rich history of resistance and reform; it diverts attention from the real work that white people need to do in collaboration with people of color.”
Dr. Kathryn King, coalition coleader of Montevallo’s ongoing Community Remembrance Project, encapsulated this moment best: “Morrison’s work is inspirational for anyone with eyes to see, ears to hear. Her passion for social justice, an honesty that comes from long self-examination, the courage to share vulnerable parts of herself – these qualities give her a credibility that is pretty unusual, I think. I noticed that Black students were eager to talk with her; she seemed to speak truth to them. She spoke truth to me, too.”
“As a white woman, I found myself reflecting on ways my whiteness and white privilege have shaped my life. Why in the world did I think that growing up in all-white midwestern suburbs allowed me to escape racism,” added King.
“I was reminded that I need to confront my own investment in racism, even as I work with Black folks to acknowledge suppressed parts of our history – the ugly and painful parts, the racial terror that has damaged so many and that just won’t go away. But her message is one of hope: we can do this. And challenge: so, let’s get on with it.”