People Wasn't Made to Burn: A True Story of Race and
Murder in Chicago
By Joe Allen - Chicago Haymarket, May 2011
By Carl Finamore
September 8, 2011
"People Wasn't Made to Burn" by journalist Joe Allen,
reads like a lively, creative work of fiction with its
abundance of larger-than-life characters and a
seemingly over-dramatized back story of shocking events
awaiting one Black family escaping southern rural
poverty and landing amidst northern urban racism.
The story includes corruption, greed, a heavy dose of
Chicago political intrigue and finally, arson, death
and murder. It even has a surprise ending. It has all
the ingredients of a late-night bedside read, but it is
all too real. It is, in fact, the actual and very
personal story of one Mississippi Black share-cropping
family that faced multiple tragedies after moving north
to Chicago in 1947.
Within a year of their arrival, their dreams of a
better life were extinguished. Four of their young
children died in a fiery blaze in their overcrowded,
Locked exit doors, inaccessible fire escapes and other
intolerable conditions prevented the children from
Unsafe living conditions had previously been reported
by the James Hickman family and ignored by apathetic
police, inept fire and corrupt city housing
After experiencing the horrific loss of four of their
infant children, the inconsolably distraught father
shot and killed the landlord thought to have set the
The landlord had consistently escaped justice for his
alleged unconscionable deeds through the bungling and
apathy of Chicago officials when, finally, an
emotionally overwhelmed Hickman took justice into his
He was promptly jailed and faced murder charges.
Though the events described are quite extraordinary,
the experience of the Hickman family serves as the
common narrative for millions of other southern Blacks
living in post-WW11 northern squalor.
Who is Really Guilty of Murder
Woven throughout by the author is another important and
instructive historical reference. It takes the reader
through the formation of the James Hickman defense
committee and an inside look into its strategy and
leadership by an assorted group of trade unionists,
civil rights activists, attorneys, socialists and, of
all things, prominent stage and screen actress Tallulah
All of whom came to defend Hickman. All united in one
powerful defense committee intent on exposing the
criminal living conditions prevailing in the Black
Fortunately, several committee members were already
veterans of struggle. Frank Fried, my good friend, lone
surviving member of the defense group and cited by
Allen as the book's inspiration, was among them.
He now lives the retired life in Alameda, California
but was then fresh out of the Navy and unemployed. He
was available to do the "leg work" of the committee.
"I had lots of energy, I was only twenty years old and
besides, I already considered myself a revolutionary,"
he told me.
"Our small socialist group was working with west-side
tenants around the brutal housing conditions before the
Hickman case so we were involved from the start of his
defense because we were part of the struggle from the
All that political and practical experience would come
in handy since Hickman freely admitted to shooting the
landlord. Plus, there were hostile witnesses as well.
Nonetheless, the Hickman committee successfully turned
the tables on city authorities for allowing such horrid
social conditions to exist.
"The big thing," Fried explained to me, "is that the
defense committee created an atmosphere in Chicago, and
to a lesser degree around the country, that made it
impossible for them to convict him of murder.
Significant sections of the labor movement, for
example, backed Hickman.
"He was a worker and he was a victim of class injustice
because he was Black and poor and forced to live in
segregated impoverished neighborhoods. We successfully
injected that social understanding and solidarity into
the labor movement."
Fried was among the small number of revolutionaries
organized in the Socialist Workers Party that
originated the Hickman defense committee. The extremely
qualified and experienced lead attorney was also a
Even though no longer a member for several decades,
Fried still says with great pride that "it was among
the party's finest moments, I thought."
The Defense Does not Rest
The investigation, discovery and presentation of
broader extenuating social circumstances into a
criminal case is commonly called a political defense
and is shunned by most defense attorneys and,
certainly, almost always ruled out of order by judges.
It is best, we are counseled, to stay focused
exclusively on the facts of the case. Who did what,
where and when.
But the Hickman defense committee's radical originators
traced their heritage to the historic International
Labor Defense (ILD) committee of the 1920s that built
extremely broad support for Sacco and Vanzetti and
other lesser-known framed-up poor workers.
The Hickman defense committee initial core of leaders
took their lead, for example, from ILD founder, James
P. Cannon who once described "the real story of the
ILD" as "the scrupulous handling and public accounting
of its funds and the broad, out-going, non-partisan
spirit in which all its activities were conducted."
Modeled on this united-front approach, all defenders of
Hickman's defense were welcome, regardless of political
views on other subjects and regardless of the views of
Hickman himself who, apparently, held deeply-avowed
almost mystical, visionary religious conceptions.
None of this mattered. What mattered was that Hickman
was a victim of racist segregation and mistreatment in
Chicago every bit as wretched as what he experienced at
the hands of the southern plutocracy.
Northern Segregation was Entrenched
For example, it was common to cram dozens of families
into the same three and four room tenements, to gouge
them for abnormally high rent and utilities and then to
eventually pressure them to move out so that higher
rents could be charged to the next group of unaware,
naive and desperate southern refugees; all of whom were
confined in their search to the overcrowded, segregated
Chicago Black neighborhoods.
Sometimes, landlords would actually burn out
discontented tenants when they gradually began to
protest their conditions. In fact, in court testimony,
it was noted that Hickman's landlord threatened several
times "to burn them out" along with other complaining
These extreme and inhumane conditions often lead to
extreme reactions. And herein describes the essence of
Hickman's political defense.
Years later in 1965, Martin Luther King would describe
the "de-facto segregation" in Chicago as among the
worst in America.
As a native Chicagoan, I vividly recall accounts of
King being assaulted as he marched through
neighborhoods, leading him to remark after one famously
televised incident of rock throwing on August 5, 1966,
that ``I have seen many demonstrations in the south but
I have never seen anything so hostile and so hateful as
I've seen here today.''
The deeply entrenched racism in Chicago and throughout
the north make even more remarkable the success of the
Hickman defense committee two decades prior to King`s
City prosecutors were ultimately pressured to admit
mitigating circumstances and they dropped murder
charges, allowing Hickman to plead guilty to
manslaughter and to be released on probation.
He spent the rest of his life with his wife and
surviving two children without ever again coming to the
attention of the law.
A truly amazing outcome, described poignantly by Allen.
Thus, the reader learns not only of the horrendous
conditions faced by this one family and by millions of
other Blacks who ventured north to escape poverty but
we also learn of the intrepid efforts of Chicago's
"left," on the eve of the McCarthy "witch-hunt" period,
to politically defend marginal victims of social
Years later, I came to know several of these Chicago
defense committee leaders during my anti-Vietnam war
protest days. Their experience was once again put into
play as we sought to involve the broadest possible
united opposition to the war regardless of opposing
political views we may have had on other issues.
I very much appreciated Allen's biographical research
of these radical activists and shall never forget the
contributions several of them personally passed along
to me and to other young activists in the decades after
The current generation, I think, can also learn much by
reading their story. ________________
Carl Finamore was born in Chicago and raised in the
all-white segregated northwest side. He is now a
Machinist union delegate to the San Francisco Labor
True Crime for Our Times: 'People Wasn't Made to Burn'
By Dave Zirin
July 11, 2011
In Ernest Mandel's Delightful Murder: A Social History
of the Crime Story, 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
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 (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 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. Allen doesn't indict an individual, inasmuch as
he indicts the more shadowed Jim Crow laws that ruled
the North. He indicts the horrific housing conditions
in post-war Chicago and, finally, a criminal justice
system that focuses on individual crimes while systemic
ones go unpunished.
The true-crime under exploration is the case of James
Hickman. Hickman, a father and laborer, murdered his
unarmed landlord, David Coleman, in full view on a
Chicago street. On trial and facing the gallows, the
reasons for Hickman's crime spread quickly across the
Windy City. Four of Hickman's children had just burned
to death in a fire at Hickman's building while he was
working the night shift. Before this unspeakable
tragedy, Coleman had threatened, as was common
practice, to force every resident out of the building,
even "if it takes fire." James and his wife Annie
Hickman had been complaining about the terrible
conditions and Coleman, who was also African-American,
said that if they took their grievances to the
authorities, "I have a man on the East Side ready to
burn the place up." Allen recounts in painstaking
detail, the night of the fire. He takes you inside the
subhuman conditions of a rat-infested Chicago
"kitchenette apartment." As the great author of Native
Son, Richard Wright, once wrote, "The kitchenette is
our prison, our death sentence without a trial." For
the Hickman family, it really was a death sentence,
impossible to escape once Coleman decided to smoke them
Allen makes you see the fire through the eyes of James
Hickman, returning home on a darkened Chicago street
amidst the crowds of onlookers, trying to figure out
which of his children had escaped and which had died.
As he said to his son a few weeks later, "Paper was
made to burn, coal and rags, not people.. People wasn't
made to burn."
After receiving no justice for the murder of his
children, Hickman took matters into his own hands, and
jolted an entire city. Prosecutors wanted the high-
profile defendant to suffer. Hickman faced a decade
behind bars or execution in the electric chair. Black
men shooting landlords was not to define post-war
America. It looked like James Hickman was on an express
train to the gallows. But here is where the second part
of Allen's story kicks into gear. Hickman became a
city-wide cause for an angered populace. Their ranks
included pastors, trade unionists. socialists,
musicians and even movie stars like Tallulah Bankhead.
The great artist Ben Shahn did a series of drawings
about the case, which appear throughout the book.
On the trial's first day, local United Auto Workers
leader Willoughby Abner told a throng of reporters:
"Although James Hickman stands in the defendant's dock
today, it is society that is really on trial. Society
has created the conditions making Hickman cases and
Hickman tragedies inevitable. Society is unconcerned
about the loss of Hickman's children; unconcerned about
the miserable housing conditions that Hickman and his
family of nine had to live under. The same government
which failed to heed the need of Hickman and millions
of other Hickmans is now trying to convict Hickman for
its own crimes, its own failures."
This was a civil rights movement before civil rights.
It's also a story that upturns the common American
narrative that these battles took place first south of
the Mason-Dixon Line. It's a hidden history that makes
the story feel both revelatory and dangerous. This is a
"true crime" book where readers are forced to confront
the nature of crime. It's a history that could have
been forgotten. Allen has rescued a part of our social
history, which on its own is an impressive
accomplishment. He has turned the true-crime genre
upside down, which also is a fantastic feat. But by the
book's end, Allen relates the Hickman case to our own
troubled times. "The new normal" that comprises our own
twenty-first-century housing crisis means that our
world is producing more David Colemans and,
potentially, more James Hickmans. Like all true-crime
books, the story serves as a warning; except this time,
the warning isn't directed at the reader.
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