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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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What I appreciate about Joe Allen’s work is that he demonstrates as a historian
the power of informationmeticulous, 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 forgetand 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
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Top Customer Reviews
-excerpt from Counterpunch
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.
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.Read more ›
Mr. Hickman--who worked at US Steel--moved his family into the attic of one such building. However, a tenant activist began demanding repairs, so the landlord burned down the building, killing four of the Hickman children. A year later, Hickman finds himself on trial for the murder of his landlord, represented by Leon Despres, later an icon of Chicago's civil rights and progressive politics--but then a young labor lawyer. Hickman's case also became the focus of a national defense and support committee, organized by the Trotskyite wing of the US Socialist movement.
The author does a great job weaving together the various elements of this story: Black migration, racial discrimination in housing, the criminal investigation of the landlord, the prosecution of Hickman, and how the technical legal defense work was intimately tied to the political organizing.
Unfortunately, this story still resonates today. As the author notes in an epilogue, children continue to die in fires burning overcrowded, dilapidated buildings; and some people are still organizing in support of the victims of unjust prosecutions. In Uptown, one of the first cases I worked on in the early 80's involved a series of fires, several of which resulted in the deaths of tenants, where the owner of deteriorated buildings, packed full of poor people, escaped all criminal liability.
The author has done a great job digging this story out of the dustbin of history, and setting it out here for everyone to read. Take advantage!
Dave Zirin | The Nation, July 11, 2011
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.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
While in college almost 40 years ago, I took a class from Professor
Tom Kelly. Then he was teaching at Governors State University. Read more
I highly recommend this book. You get a great sense of a time in history and of the city of Chicago.Published 20 months ago by brooklyn
What an Intresting story about my family history and how just was served... I hope this becomes useful to everyonePublished 22 months ago by LATRESHA SAMPLER
This book combines both a compelling story and a lesson in how to fight injustice. The two aspects are woven together deftly. Many more people should read this book. Read morePublished on April 24, 2013 by PAUL DAMATO
Great book! I knew the gist of the hickman story for awhile but was very pleased with the depth and vividness of the characters and the situations that joe allen brings to the... Read morePublished on November 13, 2012 by Dan Sharber
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... Read morePublished on March 5, 2012 by Joan
This book is surprisingly inspiring and uplifting for telling the story of such tragedies. Most true crime/detective novels cast the police as heroes. Read morePublished on November 4, 2011 by John Green