Race and Justice in America

A Variety of Voices

A Let's Talk About It series developed by librarian consultants Elizabeth Hartsig and Holly Williams with project scholar Leroy Rowe.


  • Contempt of Court: The Turn-of-the-Century Lynching That Launched A Hundred Years of Federalism  by Mark Curriden and Leroy Phillips, Jr.
  • Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age by Kevin Boyle
  • The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins: Justice, Gender, and the Origins of the LA Riots by Brenda Stevenson
  • Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson
  • The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race by Jesmyn Ward


Race and Justice in America seeks to encourage a discourse on the complex and often uneasy relationship between Americans citizens and the American system of justice. The hope is that participants will gain new insights on the ways that institutionalized racism and individual biases often manifest themselves in ways that deny some American citizens (mostly black and brown people, who also make up the vast majority of the poor in this country,) their constitutional right to equal protection and equal treatment under the laws. Indeed, the series will demonstrate that race has been a defining feature of the American democratic experience and that the ideology of white supremacy is still deeply embedded within the American system of justice today. As such, it challenges the notions of this being a “postracial” society and that the American system of justice is both impartial and “colorblind.”

Relying on history’s capacity to explain why things are, the Race and Justice in America series seeks to explain not only white fear and black anger, but also why many black and brown people have a profound mistrust of this country’s process of using laws founded on an ideology of white supremacy to judge and punish its non-white citizens. The series aims to encourage civil discourse by illuminating the linkages between the past and present. Another goal of the series is to show the effect that the political system of race has had on both individuals and communities of color across the nation. That is, what has changed and what remains the same in the treatment of black and brown citizens in the American justice system from the 1890s through two decades of the current century?

Race and Justice in America also explores the changing boundaries and content of citizenship. The core questions that the series engages are: how is membership in the social and political community defined for African Americans and whites in the United States? How have those definitions changed over time? Can all citizens fully exercise their constitutional rights?

Race and Justice in America asks: What was it like to be black in the Jim Crow South during legalized segregation—a period of state-sponsored racism and white supremacy? It also raises the questions, how do black individuals and communities across different regions of the country experience justice in America and in what ways have those experiences changed during and since the end of legalized segregation? Thus, the series examines the legal structure and cost of de jure Jim Crow with an eye toward building greater understanding of racial discrimination as a national rather than local or regional phenomenon. For example, the series will show that the Jim Crow criminal justice system has never been exclusively southern, nor has its victims been entirely male. As the readings will illuminate, institutional racism has discriminated against both black men and black women. Likewise, the series also demonstrates that racism is still deeply embedded in the American criminal justice system of the urban North, Midwest, and West as well.

The series spans the period from the turn-of-the-twentieth-century through the first two decades of the current. Particular focus is placed upon the racial underpinnings that inform the interactions between black citizens and America’s institutions of justice. What are the sources (legal traditions, legal text, ethical values, and cultural norms) that shape how policymakers, judges, prosecutors, police officers, and journalists evaluate and treat black citizens who come in contact with the criminal justice system? Additionally, the series links the methods of historical inquiry and analysis with those of legal and political scholarship and autobiographical narrative to emphasize the racial undercurrents behind public policies and court rulings, and the legal constraints that operate on social processes. Thus, all of the books in this series draw on interpretative legal works, historical events, and individual lived experiences to better illuminate the roots of the complex and often uneasy relationship between black Americans and the U.S. justice system.

The books selected for this series will demonstrate and help readers better understand the ways that concepts of white power and racism is embedded within the American legal and criminal justice systems and, as a result, impact how justice is both dispensed and is experienced by individuals and communities at different periods of history and across the different regions of the country. As such, each of the books in this series provides historical analyses of selected events, court rulings, and public policies that help to explain the black Americans struggle for citizenship, civil rights, and equal treatment under the laws, and how justice is often undercut by institutional racism and private prejudices. The books offer a thorough, stimulating, and riveting look at selected events, court cases, and individual stories that clearly depict the peculiar and tenuous relationship between justice and the law as well as the toll often exacted upon individuals, communities, and the nation.


Book Descriptions


Contempt of Court: The Turn-of-the-Century Lynching That Launched A Hundred Years of Federalism

In this profound and fascinating book, the authors revisit an overlooked Supreme Court decision that changed forever how justice is carried out in the United States. In 1906, Ed Johnson, an illiterate black man, was found guilty of the rape of Nevada Taylor, a white woman, and sentenced to die in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Johnson’s two black lawyers appealed to the Supreme Court for a stay of execution, which was granted by Justice John Marshall Harlan. A decade earlier Harlan was the author of the lone dissenting opinion in the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896, in which the Supreme Court held that the state of Louisiana did not violate the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by establishing and enforcing a policy of racial segregation in its railway system. Although Harlan argued in his dissent that the “Constitution knows no color or creed,” the Plessy v. Ferguson decision established the principle of separate but equal, giving constitutional protection to Jim Crow laws mandating the segregation of black and white citizens. Furious at what they considered federal interference in the southern way of administering justice, and with newspaper editorials fanning the flames, a local white mob responded by breaking into the jail and lynching Ed Johnson, an innocent man. In response, the nation’s highest constitutional body responded by finding the local sheriff in contempt of court. However, this a move was less about achieving justice for Ed Johnson than safeguarding the reputation of the Supreme Court.


Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age

Kevin Boyles recounts how Ossian Sweet, the grandson of slaves, worked his way up to become a doctor and purchased a home in an all-white neighborhood of Detroit, only to be met by a violent mob. When someone inside Sweet’s home fired a shot into the mob, killing one of the white persons, Ossian, his wife, and others we’re arrested. Boyles uses police reports, courtroom testimonies, and other sources to demonstrate the larger African American struggle to be treated equally before the law.

The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins: Justice, Gender, and the Origins of the LA Riots

In this powerful blend of social history, legal and ethnic studies, Brenda Stevenson calls attention to “the vulnerability of the most defenseless in the nation’s socially constructed hierarchy—women and children of the racially, culturally, economically, and politically marginalized.” Stevenson recaptures the details of Soon Ja Du’s shooting of Latasha Harlins, a fifteen-year-old black girl, in the back of the head, killing the teen for what the Korean immigrant and shopkeeper wrongly assume was an attempt to steel a bottle of orange juice that at the time cost $1.79. Stevenson shows how the ensuing trial, manslaughter conviction, and lenient sentence “led to the Los Angeles riot/uprising of 1992, the most deadly and costly race riot in United States history.”


Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption

Brian Stevenson is the founder of “the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending the poor, wrongly condemned, and those trapped in the furthest reaches of our criminal justice system.” In this very timely memoir, Stevenson gives readers a firsthand look into the inner workings of what remains of Jim Crow justice today. Detailing how legal brinksmanship, political manipulation, and a legacy of institutional racism and prejudice still lands innocent American citizens on death row for crimes that they did not commit. Stevenson calls for mercy and redemption to be placed at the fore of the American system of justice. Indeed, he reminds readers that even persons who commit crimes are human beings and that criminals have rights, too. Moreover, even convicted felons deserve the chance to redeem themselves and be forgiven for past mistakes.


The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race

The series ends with Jesmyn Ward’s The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race (2016). Consisting of short essay pieces (and poems) written as first-person creative nonfiction or memoir, the book offers very compelling contemporary testimonies from thoughtful creative minds. The contributors confront the legacy of America’s racial history and what it means to be black, and a citizen living in this country today within the current context of the seemingly unstoppable tide of racism, death, bigotry, bias, and injustices. The book is both readable and engaging. All of the essays relate to the ideas of race, citizenship, immigration, and justice. The authors directly address the current state of race relations in the country, including fears of recent immigrants of color and “the precarious nature of citizenship” in contemporary America.


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Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this program do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.