True Crime for Our Times: ‘People Wasn’t Made to Burn’ | by Joe Allen

by Sep 11, 2011All Articles


Two Reviews

“People Wasn’t Made to Burn” by journalist Joe Allen, reads like a lively, creative work of fiction with its abundance of larger-than-life characters and a seemingly over-dramatized back story of shocking events awaiting one Black family escaping southern rural poverty and landing amidst northern urban racism.

The story includes corruption, greed, a heavy dose of Chicago political intrigue and finally, arson, death and murder. It even has a surprise ending. It has all the ingredients of a late-night bedside read, but it is all too real. It is, in fact, the actual and very personal story of one Mississippi Black share-cropping family that faced multiple tragedies after moving north to Chicago in 1947.

Within a year of their arrival, their dreams of a better life were extinguished. Four of their young children died in a fiery blaze in their overcrowded, dilapidated tenement.

Locked exit doors, inaccessible fire escapes and other intolerable conditions prevented the children from escaping.

Unsafe living conditions had previously been reported by the James Hickman family and ignored by apathetic police, inept fire and corrupt city housing authorities.

After experiencing the horrific loss of four of their infant children, the inconsolably distraught father shot and killed the landlord thought to have set the fire.

The landlord had consistently escaped justice for his alleged unconscionable deeds through the bungling and apathy of Chicago officials when, finally, an emotionally overwhelmed Hickman took justice into his own hands.

He was promptly jailed and faced murder charges.

Though the events described are quite extraordinary, the experience of the Hickman family serves as the common narrative for millions of other southern Blacks living in post-WW11 northern squalor.

Who is Really Guilty of Murder

Woven throughout by the author is another important and instructive historical reference. It takes the reader through the formation of the James Hickman defense committee and an inside look into its strategy and leadership by an assorted group of trade unionists, civil rights activists, attorneys, socialists and, of all things, prominent stage and screen actress Tallulah Bankhead.

All of whom came to defend Hickman. All united in one powerful defense committee intent on exposing the criminal living conditions prevailing in the Black slums.

Fortunately, several committee members were already veterans of struggle. Frank Fried, my good friend, lone surviving member of the defense group and cited by Allen as the book’s inspiration, was among them.

He now lives the retired life in Alameda, California but was then fresh out of the Navy and unemployed. He was available to do the “leg work” of the committee.

“I had lots of energy, I was only twenty years old and besides, I already considered myself a revolutionary,” he told me.

“Our small socialist group was working with west-side tenants around the brutal housing conditions before the Hickman case so we were involved from the start of his defense because we were part of the struggle from the start.”

All that political and practical experience would come in handy since Hickman freely admitted to shooting the landlord. Plus, there were hostile witnesses as well.

Nonetheless, the Hickman committee successfully turned the tables on city authorities for allowing such horrid social conditions to exist.

“The big thing,” Fried explained to me, “is that the defense committee created an atmosphere in Chicago, and to a lesser degree around the country, that made it impossible for them to convict him of murder. Significant sections of the labor movement, for example, backed Hickman.

“He was a worker and he was a victim of class injustice because he was Black and poor and forced to live in segregated impoverished neighborhoods. We successfully injected that social understanding and solidarity into the labor movement.”

Fried was among the small number of revolutionaries organized in the Socialist Workers Party that originated the Hickman defense committee. The extremely qualified and experienced lead attorney was also a member.

Even though no longer a member for several decades, Fried still says with great pride that “it was among the party’s finest moments, I thought.”

The Defense Does not Rest

The investigation, discovery and presentation of broader extenuating social circumstances into a criminal case is commonly called a political defense and is shunned by most defense attorneys and, certainly, almost always ruled out of order by judges.

It is best, we are counseled, to stay focused exclusively on the facts of the case. Who did what, where and when.

But the Hickman defense committee’s radical originators traced their heritage to the historic International Labor Defense (ILD) committee of the 1920s that built extremely broad support for Sacco and Vanzetti and other lesser-known framed-up poor workers.

The Hickman defense committee initial core of leaders took their lead, for example, from ILD founder, James P. Cannon who once described “the real story of the ILD” as “the scrupulous handling and public accounting of its funds and the broad, out-going, non-partisan spirit in which all its activities were conducted.”

Modeled on this united-front approach, all defenders of Hickman’s defense were welcome, regardless of political views on other subjects and regardless of the views of Hickman himself who, apparently, held deeply-avowed almost mystical, visionary religious conceptions.

None of this mattered. What mattered was that Hickman was a victim of racist segregation and mistreatment in Chicago every bit as wretched as what he experienced at the hands of the southern plutocracy.

Northern Segregation was Entrenched

For example, it was common to cram dozens of families into the same three and four room tenements, to gouge them for abnormally high rent and utilities and then to eventually pressure them to move out so that higher rents could be charged to the next group of unaware, naive and desperate southern refugees; all of whom were confined in their search to the overcrowded, segregated Chicago Black neighborhoods.

Sometimes, landlords would actually burn out discontented tenants when they gradually began to protest their conditions. In fact, in court testimony, it was noted that Hickman’s landlord threatened several times “to burn them out” along with other complaining tenants.

These extreme and inhumane conditions often lead to extreme reactions. And herein describes the essence of Hickman’s political defense.

Years later in 1965, Martin Luther King would describe the “de-facto segregation” in Chicago as among the worst in America.

As a native Chicagoan, I vividly recall accounts of King being assaulted as he marched through neighborhoods, leading him to remark after one famously televised incident of rock throwing on August 5, 1966, that “I have seen many demonstrations in the south but I have never seen anything so hostile and so hateful as I’ve seen here today.”

The deeply entrenched racism in Chicago and throughout the north make even more remarkable the success of the Hickman defense committee two decades prior to King`s monumental crusade.

City prosecutors were ultimately pressured to admit mitigating circumstances and they dropped murder charges, allowing Hickman to plead guilty to manslaughter and to be released on probation.

He spent the rest of his life with his wife and surviving two children without ever again coming to the attention of the law.

A truly amazing outcome, described poignantly by Allen.

Thus, the reader learns not only of the horrendous conditions faced by this one family and by millions of other Blacks who ventured north to escape poverty but we also learn of the intrepid efforts of Chicago’s “left,” on the eve of the McCarthy “witch-hunt” period, to politically defend marginal victims of social injustice.

Years later, I came to know several of these Chicago defense committee leaders during my anti-Vietnam war protest days. Their experience was once again put into play as we sought to involve the broadest possible united opposition to the war regardless of opposing political views we may have had on other issues.

I very much appreciated Allen’s biographical research of these radical activists and shall never forget the contributions several of them personally passed along to me and to other young activists in the decades after Hickman.

The current generation, I think, can also learn much by reading their story. ________________

Carl Finamore was born in Chicago and raised in the all-white segregated northwest side. He is now a Machinist union delegate to the San Francisco Labor Council, AFL-CIO.


A Review by Dave Zirin

In Ernest Mandel’s Delightful Murder: A Social History of the Crime Story, the esteemed Belgian Marxist argues that the police procedural is, by its very nature, inherently right-wing. The genre, argues Mandel, is an exercise where, “Revolt against private property becomes individualized. With motivation no longer social, the rebel becomes a thief and murderer.” Modern culture has taken the “social bandit”, best exemplified by Robin Hood, and turned them into paragons of evil whose destruction is a precondition to civilization. It’s worth noting that the immensely lucrative “true crime canon” follows these same rules. Best selling books about “true crime” are tributes to single-minded police agents who take down sociopathic villains. Monsters in the countryside are slain and calm is restored.

I wish Mandel were alive so he could read Joe Allen’s astonishing “true crime” book People Wasn’t Made to Burn: A True Story of Race, Murder, and Justice in Chicago (Haymarket Books). I hope it would have compelled Mandel to reconsider what the political trajectory and potential of the true crime story can be. I know, as someone who consumes these books like salted cashews, it has for me.

A former Teamster shop steward and Chicago socialist, Allen is no typical true-crime writer. He’s an activist, an advocate and a sort of “people’s detective.” In these unconventional hands, People Wasn’t Made to Burn does nothing less than reinvent the true-crime genre. Instead of being a morality play of good individual vs. evil, Allen, using a raft of primary research, explores a much broader set of crimes. Allen doesn’t indict an individual, inasmuch as he indicts the more shadowed Jim Crow laws that ruled the North. He indicts the horrific housing conditions in post-war Chicago and, finally, a criminal justice system that focuses on individual crimes while systemic ones go unpunished.

The true-crime under exploration is the case of James Hickman. Hickman, a father and laborer, murdered his unarmed landlord, David Coleman, in full view on a Chicago street. On trial and facing the gallows, the reasons for Hickman’s crime spread quickly across the Windy City. Four of Hickman’s children had just burned to death in a fire at Hickman’s building while he was working the night shift. Before this unspeakable tragedy, Coleman had threatened, as was common practice, to force every resident out of the building, even “if it takes fire.” James and his wife Annie Hickman had been complaining about the terrible conditions and Coleman, who was also African-American, said that if they took their grievances to the authorities, “I have a man on the East Side ready to burn the place up.” Allen recounts in painstaking detail, the night of the fire. He takes you inside the subhuman conditions of a rat-infested Chicago “kitchenette apartment.” As the great author of Native Son, Richard Wright, once wrote, “The kitchenette is our prison, our death sentence without a trial.” For the Hickman family, it really was a death sentence, impossible to escape once Coleman decided to smoke them out.

Allen makes you see the fire through the eyes of James Hickman, returning home on a darkened Chicago street amidst the crowds of onlookers, trying to figure out which of his children had escaped and which had died.

As he said to his son a few weeks later, “Paper was made to burn, coal and rags, not people.… People wasn’t made to burn.”

After receiving no justice for the murder of his children, Hickman took matters into his own hands, and jolted an entire city. Prosecutors wanted the high-profile defendant to suffer. Hickman faced a decade behind bars or execution in the electric chair. Black men shooting landlords was not to define post-war America. It looked like James Hickman was on an express train to the gallows. But here is where the second part of Allen’s story kicks into gear. Hickman became a city-wide cause for an angered populace. Their ranks included pastors, trade unionists. socialists, musicians and even movie stars like Tallulah Bankhead. The great artist Ben Shahn did a series of drawings about the case, which appear throughout the book.

On the trial’s first day, local United Auto Workers leader Willoughby Abner told a throng of reporters:

“Although James Hickman stands in the defendant’s dock today, it is society that is really on trial. Society has created the conditions making Hickman cases and Hickman tragedies inevitable. Society is unconcerned about the loss of Hickman’s children; unconcerned about the miserable housing conditions that Hickman and his family of nine had to live under. The same government which failed to heed the need of Hickman and millions of other Hickmans is now trying to convict Hickman for its own crimes, its own failures.”

This was a civil rights movement before civil rights. It’s also a story that upturns the common American narrative that these battles took place first south of the Mason-Dixon Line. It’s a hidden history that makes the story feel both revelatory and dangerous. This is a “true crime” book where readers are forced to confront the nature of crime. It’s a history that could have been forgotten. Allen has rescued a part of our social history, which on its own is an impressive accomplishment. He has turned the true-crime genre upside down, which also is a fantastic feat. But by the book’s end, Allen relates the Hickman case to our own troubled times. “The new normal” that comprises our own twenty-first-century housing crisis means that our world is producing more David Colemans and, potentially, more James Hickmans. Like all true-crime books, the story serves as a warning; except this time, the warning isn’t directed at the reader.

Reviewed by Dave Zirin  | The Nation

About the author
Joe Allen is a frequent contributor to the International Socialist Review and a long-standing activist, based in Chicago.

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