Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Race, Rape, and Injustice: Documenting and Challenging Death Penalty Cases in the Civil Rights Era

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Race, Rape, and Injustice: Documenting and Challenging Death Penalty Cases in the Civil Rights Era

Article excerpt

Race, Rape, and Injustice: Documenting and Challenging Death Penalty Cases in the Civil Rights Era. By Barrett J. Foerster. Edited by Michael Meltsner. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2012. Pp. [xiv], 208. $39.95, ISBN 978-1-57233-862-3.)

Barrett J. Foerster tells the story of how he and twenty-seven other young northern law students volunteered in 1965 to help the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (the Fund) document racial disparity in sentencing blacks and whites convicted of rape by gathering data archived in county courthouses throughout the South. He links the data gathered to several major U.S. Supreme Court death penalty decisions and concludes that America's judicial system became significantly less racially discriminatory as a result.

The initial phase of Foerster's book is a wonderful personal account of his southern journey, supplemented by the diaries of and interviews with some of his colleagues. The project began with a meeting at the University of Pennsylvania, just one year after the murders of civil rights workers Michael Schwemer, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney. Anthony Amsterdam, legendary law professor and death penalty opponent, told the group their work could change "'this country's constitutional history'" (p. 3). Criminologist Marvin Wolfgang challenged the students to find the data that would allow him to create an objective, statistical picture of rape sentencing. The students were warned of possible dangers and told to maintain a low profile.

Foerster was assigned to search the archives of several Louisiana parish courthouses. He brings the reader along as he confronts suspicious court clerks, dodges an inquisitive barber's questions, and races down an alley and across a busy highway to elude some African American toughs. White professionals and blue-collar workers told Foerster that '"Negrahs 'round here know their places,"' and white southerners intended to keep it that way (p. …

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