Although the title may suggest a fictional thriller, "Murder on Shades Mountain" is a straightforward, thoroughly researched nonfiction account of yet another disgraceful episode in Alabama racial history.
Morrison includes details about economic conditions in the 1930s, racial tensions, the parallel case going on in Scottsboro, the lynchings in Tuscaloosa, the uproar over the participation of the Communist party lawyers in Alabama cases, and much more, but a summary of what we really know about the events on Shades Mountain on a day in August 1931 can be brief.
Three white girls from Mountain Brook, Jennie Wood, Augusta Williams and her younger sister, Nell Williams, after a movie matinee, went for a ride, just to see the sights.
According to Nell, a Negro man jumped onto the running board of their car, made them drive to a secluded spot, and held them all at gunpoint for perhaps four hours. Immediately afterward, she said that he seemed well-educated, perhaps a Yankee, and harangued the women about racism and social justice. The man allegedly ravished Jennie Wood after shooting Augusta in the abdomen, then shot Jennie Wood in the neck and as a parting shot, Nell in the right arm.
The assailant fled, Nell ran for help.
Augusta would die that evening of blood loss, Jennie Wood a few days later.
That is what we think we know, although even this account, except for the actual gunshot wounds, is in some dispute.
When the police arrived and the newspapers published their account of the incident, all hell broke loose, what Morrison describes as a "reign of terror."
As whites searched for the assailant, "Black-owned businesses were targeted by vigilantes, and random attacks on black people occurred as angry mobs charged through black neighborhoods." Electricity in black neighborhoods was cut off by the city each evening at 10 p.m., making them especially vulnerable.
Morrison reports that "Hundreds of black men were apprehended, detained, questioned," legally and illegally.
Charlie Horton was taken from his home and shot in the spine.
James Bennett was abducted by three men claiming to be police officers and shot three times. James and William Edwards, traveling on a freight train, were both shot. James died.
Angelo Herndon, 18 and a new member of the Communist Party, was arrested, beaten with rubber hoses, and only released when Nell Williams declared he was not the man. Herndon "estimated that as many as seventy black people of both sexes were killed in the weeks following August 4, 1931." Maybe it wasn't seventy but lawlessness ran amok.
Finally, after several weeks went by, and no suspects, alive or in photographs, were positively identified by Nell Williams, who changed her description of the killer several different ways, she positively identified Willie Peterson, and the nightmare turned into absurd theater.
Despite a good many discrepancies and contradictions, Ms. Williams never wavered in her identification.
Although the assailant had been in and on the car for hours, no fingerprint evidence was offered. Willie Peterson was local, not possibly a northern Negro. He weighed only 125 pounds, skinny, nearly emaciated. On disability, Willie Peterson had tuberculosis.
Nevertheless, Peterson was arraigned and tried, the judge being "Cotton Tom" Heflin's brother H. P. Heflin. Judge Heflin’s conduct during the trial led many to believe he was “working in tandem with the state.”
Miraculously, there was a deadlocked jury and mistrial but, in the retrial, no second miracle was available. Even though many in law enforcement knew Peterson had a sound alibi and was physically incapable of the crime, it finally came down to whether a jury of white Southern men would decline to believe the sworn testimony of a white Southern woman from a fine family.
As Morrison puts it: “If a physical or sexual assault occurred and a white woman of Nell Williams’s social class and standing said, ‘a Negro did it,’ white men were honor bound to avenge this gravest of violations by any means necessary.”
(Readers will see the similarities to the trial of Tom Robinson in "To Kill A Mockingbird.” That defendant had a useless arm and the accusing white woman was not of high social standing. Nevertheless.)
Peterson was found guilty and sent to death row at Kilby Prison where he had to prepare himself for electrocution in Yellow Mama six times. So many letters were written on his behalf, many by law enforcement officers who believed him innocent, that in March of 1934 his sentence was commuted to life. In June of 1940 Peterson died in prison of his tuberculosis. He was 46 years old.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.