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People Wasn't Made to Burn: A True Story of Housing, Race, and Murder in Chicago Hardcover – July 26, 2011


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 328 pages
  • Publisher: Haymarket Books (July 26, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1608461262
  • ISBN-13: 978-1608461264
  • Product Dimensions: 8.1 x 5.8 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,309,766 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Review

“What I appreciate about Joe Allen’s work is that he demonstrates as a historian…the power of information—meticulous, distilled, coherent, principled.”
—John Pilger, author of Freedom Next Time

“In a remarkable feat of historical excavation and taut storytelling, Joe Allen tells the incredible story of James Hickman, an African-American man who struck back after a black Chicago slumlord and arsonist decimated his family and nearly destroyed his life. A stark look into a past of big city racism and poverty that we shouldn’t forget—and an important contribution to the history of social justice in America.”
—Alex Heard, author of The Eyes of Willie McGee

“James Hickman was one of the hundreds of thousands of black Mississippians to move to Chicago in the 1940s. The nightmarish tragedy that befell the Hickman family there, as well as the actions of the dedicated activists who fought to save Hickman’s life by revealing the institutional foundations of that tragedy, are vividly depicted in Joe Allen’s important and moving history. Hickman’s story illustrates the toxic nature of racial segregation and economic exploitation. The outraged community that united to support Hickman is a refreshing reminder of people's power to organize for change.”
—Beryl Satter, author of Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black Urban America

"[A] remarkable book... Allen tells the story in admirably straightforward fashion...[painting] a horrific portrait of the inhumane conditions in which blacks were forced to live in the post WWII Chicago." –Rick Kogan, Chicago Tribune

“People Wasn’t Made to Burn presents the 1947 Hickman trial in Chicago and its revelations as a metaphor for racial prejudice and its effects on the lives of ordinary people. The book’s story tells of James Hickman’s frustration over his inability to get justice in the arson death of his four children, his subsequent killing of the landlord who was deliberately responsible for the fire, and the efforts of the heroic and conscience-arousing Hickman Defense Committee that enabled him to walk out of court a free man.”
—Kenan Heise, author of Chicago Afternoons With Leon

About the Author

Joe Allen is a frequent contributor to the International Socialist Review and a long-standing social justice fighter, involved in the ongoing struggles for labor, abolition of the death penalty, and against the Iraq war.

More About the Author

Discover books, learn about writers, read author blogs, and more.

Customer Reviews

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Most true crime/detective novels cast the police as heroes.
John Green
Allen ends his story with a description of a 2010 fire in Cicero, Illinois, which is right outside of Chicago.
R. Jacobs
This book combines both a compelling story and a lesson in how to fight injustice.
PAUL DAMATO

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By R. Jacobs on July 12, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Joe Allen has written a masterpiece of historical narrative. The story of James Hickman and his family is an emotionally wrought story on its own. Allen's retelling leaves none of that emotion out. Although it is history he is writing down, the manner of the telling makes that history as current as the latest breaking news. The book is further enhanced by the inclusion of artist Ben Shahn's illustrations reprinted from a 1947 Harper's magazine feature about the Hickman case. Allen ends his story with a description of a 2010 fire in Cicero, Illinois, which is right outside of Chicago. There were no fire escapes in the building and it was overcrowded. The people who lived there were violating occupancy laws because they could not afford separate apartments. That fire killed seven people and was found to be deliberately set by the landlord and his maintenance man. This time around the authorities were able to get an indictment of the men responsible for the deaths. In fact, the prosecution intends to seek the death penalty. However, the system that Willoughby Abner said "failed to heed the need of Hickman and millions of other Hickmans" continues to force people to live in unsafe living conditions while making it likely that unscrupulous landlords will continue to choose profits over the safety of those who rent from them. Indeed, it will continue to make it likely that certain landlords would rather burn their properties than take care of them.
-excerpt from Counterpunch
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Suasponte on July 11, 2011
Format: Hardcover
PAPER WAS made to burn, coal and rags, not people...People wasn't made to burn," a despondent James Hickman whispered to his son Willis a few weeks after four of the youngest of James' children were burned alive by a Chicago slumlord in 1947.

It is from James Hickman's solemn declaration that Joe Allen draws the title for his new book People Wasn't Made to Burn.

People not being meant to burn mightseem irrefutable--but for many, including high-ranking political officials, police captains, newspaper publishers and landlords living in Chicago in 1947, the question was an ambiguous one as it pertained to African Americans.

Allen's historical narrative deconstructs the myth that the North was a refuge for Blacks fleeing the oppression of the South. He explains that "485 racial housing-related incidents were reported to the Chicago Commission on Human Relations between 1945 and 1950," and 100 people died in fires in 1946 alone.

Landlords who owned buildings that burned to the ground were rarely held accountable when their tenants were African American.

REVIEW: BOOKS
Joe Allen, People Wasn't Made to Burn: A True Story of Race, Murder and Justice in Chicago. Haymarket Books, 2011, 328 pages, $22.95.
James Hickman had spent months searching for a place for his family to call home during the hot summer months of 1946. As Hickman said:

Sometimes I'd get where they wasn't nothin' but white folks, I'd be the only colored man walkin' down the street. I'd see houses and I didn't know who was living there till I'd knock on the door and they'd say white folks only. They'd tell me which hundred block was for colored. I'd catch the [street]car and go back an' get off there.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Joan on March 5, 2012
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This is a real life tale of horror. When you think about how many others went through terrible situations like this in order to better provide for their families, one can only be awed by their efforts.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By John Green on November 4, 2011
Format: Hardcover
This book is surprisingly inspiring and uplifting for telling the story of such tragedies. Most true crime/detective novels cast the police as heroes. The heroes of this true story are civil rights activists.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By RiseUp on October 5, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
this is a must read for everyone; It's a great story and it is well written. Haymarket always publishes great books!
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Dave Zirin on July 13, 2011
Format: Hardcover
True Crime for Our Times: 'People Wasn't Made to Burn'

Dave Zirin | The Nation, July 11, 2011
In Ernest Mandel's Delightful Murder: A Social History of the Crime Story [1], 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 [2] (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 [2] 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.
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