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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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Editorial Reviews


“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.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 328 pages
  • Publisher: Haymarket Books; 1st edition (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: 4.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,760,140 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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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 5 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.

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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In 1947, Black migration to Chicago was inflated by the desperate need for labor in the industries manufacturing equipment for World War Two. When Blacks arrived inChicago, they were pleased to see that there were no overt signs of Jim Crow. however, strict housing segregation meant that newly arriving Blacks were stuffed into tiny, converted spaces, often without running water, at grossly inflated prices.

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!
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4 of 6 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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