PEOPLE WASN’T Made to Burn is a riveting account of a family’s tragedy and their struggle for justice, and the activists who championed their cause. It is a story of rapacious greed, of racism, and of the power of organized resistance.
James and Annie Hickman moved to Chicago in 1947, seeking a better life than the one they had as sharecroppers in Jim Crow Mississippi. They were part of the Great Migration of southern Blacks to the northern United States. They were also one of countless families who suffered at the hands of indifferent and hostile landlords.
The Hickmans found themselves living much like most other Black families in 1940s Chicago: crammed into a space inadequate for even one tenant. The building they lived in was typical of the time. Apartments were chopped up into “kitchenettes” without adequate heating, ventilation, or plumbing, and in violation of nearly every building code that existed, in order to maximize occupancy and thus maximize revenue. The dwelling was a deathtrap, yet the property owner neglected even minor repairs, raised rates, and threatened tenants with eviction if they spoke up. In the Hickmans’ case, landlord David Coleman made another threat common to slumlords of the day: he threatened to burn them out.
So when the Hickmans’ attic apartment burned down, killing their four youngest children, Coleman’s threat weighed heavily on James’s mind. The police did little to investigate, and the owner and landlord, after a hearing, got away with nothing more than a slap on the wrist. Drifting further and further into despair, James Hickman finally succumbed to the demands of the voice that told him to get justice. He bought a gun, sought out the man whom he believed had carried out the threat, and shot him to death.
Though the core of the story is the Hickman tragedy, the Hickman defense, and the Hickman trial, Allen also paints a portrait of the housing crisis, and the spate of devastating fires that plagued the Black community in Chicago. The tribulations endured by the Hickman family were all too common. What makes this particular family stand out is not the tragedy they endured, but the way in which activists placed the Hickmans’ plight in the public eye and won justice.
Activists in the Socialist Workers Party initiated a broad-based support committee that organized street protests, letter writing campaigns, and public forums in defense of James Hickman. The campaign drew in public figures such as famed actress Tallulah Bankhead, as well as local pastors and trade unionists. Alongside these efforts, the defense lawyers, who worked closely with the public defense campaign, crafted a courtroom strategy that presented Hickman as a victim of injustice rather than as a criminal, shining a spotlight on the entrenched poverty and racism faced by Blacks in Chicago. “Although James Hickman stands in the defendant’s dock today,” local United Auto Workers leader Willoughby Abner told reporters on the first day of the trial, “it is society that is really on trial. Society has created the conditions making Hickman cases and Hickman tragedies inevitable.” This direct appeal to popular sympathy fostered a national movement. The first trial resulted in a hung jury. The judge ordered a retrial and the public campaign was increased. Eventually the case was thrown out.
As Allen points out, the story—though featured along with drawings by the artist Ben Shahn in a Harpers’ article written by John Bartlow Martin in 1948—was soon forgotten. Thankfully, Allen has painstakingly resurrected it—and Haymarket has published it along with Shahn’s original drawings. The conditions which led to the fire that claimed the Hickman children have not disappeared and will not disappear so long as a profit can be made by warehousing Blacks and other poor people in substandard housing. For this reason, People Wasn’t Made to Burn is necessary reading for every housing activist, every opponent of racism, and every fighter for social justice today.