Murder on Shades Mountain

The Legal Lynching of Willie Peterson and the Struggle for Justice in Jim Crow Birmingham
(Duke University Press)

One August night in 1931, on a secluded mountain ridge overlooking Birmingham, Alabama, three young white women were brutally attacked. The sole survivor, Nell Williams, 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 identified Willie Peterson as the attacker who killed her sister Augusta and their friend Jenny Wood. With the exception of 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.

In Murder on Shades Mountain, Melanie S. Morrison tells the gripping and tragic story of the attack and its aftermath—events that shook Birmingham to its core. Having first heard the story from her father—who dated Nell's youngest sister when he was a teenager—Morrison scoured the historical archives and documented the black-led campaigns that sought to overturn Peterson's unjust conviction, spearheaded by the NAACP and the Communist Party. The travesty of justice suffered by Peterson reveals how the judicial system could function as a lynch mob in the Jim Crow South. Murder on Shades Mountain also sheds new light on the struggle for justice in Depression-era Birmingham. This riveting narrative is a testament to the courageous predecessors of present-day movements that demand an end to racial profiling, police brutality, and the criminalization of black men.


"With detail not often found in narratives of anti-black violence, Melanie S. Morrison's account of Willie Peterson's officially sanctioned murder—which has almost disappeared from the canon of black struggle—teaches us not only of the destructive power of racism, but also of its systemic nature and the efforts long before the so-called 'civil rights era' to resist it. It resonates with the cradle-to-prison-pipeline that plagues much of black life today. Well worth reading."
— Charles E. Cobb Jr., author of "This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed:
How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible"

“I devoured the whole impressive book, often reading late into the night. The ordeal of Willie Peterson in Depression Alabama has until now been a neglected episode in civil rights history. Melanie S. Morrison’s careful, compelling reconstruction of a tragic double-murder turned judicial lynching unearths profound and, alas, enduring truths about the ways race and ideology deform human decency as well as justice.”

— Diane McWhorter, author of "Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution"

Other books

Morrison, Melanie. The Grace of Coming Home: Spirituality, Sexuality, and the Struggle for Justice. Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 1995.

Morrison, Eleanor and Melanie Morrison. Created in God’s Image: A Human Sexuality Program for Ministry and Mission. Cleveland: United Church Board for Homeland Ministries, 1993.

Kamphuis, Christine and Melanie Morrison. Verpleegkundigen en Ethiek (Nurses and Ethics). Groningen: Wolters-Noordhoff, 1988.


Book Chapters

Morrison, Melanie. “Here’s To You, Mr. Robertson” Re-Membering and Re-Imagining. Nancy J. Berneking and Pamela Carter Joern, eds. Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 1995.

Morrison, Melanie. “Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Faith and Conviction” Cloud of Witnesses. Jim Wallis and Joyce Hollyday, eds. New York: Orbis Books, 1991.



Morrison, Melanie. “Becoming Trustworthy White Allies.” Yale University Reflections. Spring 2013.

Belser, Julia Watts and Melanie Morrison. “What No Longer Serves Us: Resisting Ableism and Anti-Judaism in New Testament Healing Narratives.”Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion. Fall 2011.

Morrison, Melanie. “Genealogy as Spiritual Practice.” South of the Garden. June 2011.


Works in Progress

Morrison, Melanie. Letters from Old Screamer Mountain: White Supremacy, Ancestral Legacies, and the Sacred Work of Racial Justice. (working title)