Murder on Shades Mountain: The Legal Lynching of Willie Peterson and the Struggle for Justice in Jim Crow Birmingham

- Morrison, Melanie*
On Aug. 4, 1931, on a secluded mountain ridge overlooking Birmingham, Alabama, three young white women were brutally attacked. The sole survivor, Nell Williams, age 18, said a Black man had held the women captive for four hours before shooting them and disappearing into the woods. That same night, a reign of terror was unleashed on Birmingham's Black community: Black businesses were set ablaze, posses of armed white men roamed the streets, and dozens of Black men were arrested in the largest manhunt in Jefferson County history. Weeks later, Nell Williams identified Willie Peterson as the attacker who killed her sister Augusta and their friend Jennie Wood. Except for being Black, Peterson bore little resemblance to the description Nell gave the police. An all-white jury convicted Peterson of murder and sentenced him to death.

This presentation will tell the story of the attack and its aftermath — events that shook Birmingham to its core. The presentation will also shed light on the individuals and organizations who sought to free Willie Peterson and struggled unceasingly for racial justice in Depression-era Birmingham.

Microphone needed.