Review: The Historic Murder Trial of George Crawford

Historic Murder Trial of George Crawford

Historic Murder Trial of George Crawford

Although the full title of David Bradley’s book, “The historic murder trial of George Crawford : Charles H. Houston, the NAACP and the case that put all-white southern juries on trial” is grandiose but it is accurate. The trial is historic, it involves Charles H. Houston and the NAACP, and Jim Crow restrictions on who can serve on Southern juries start to fall. I was a little concerned when I learned that Bradley is a writer for a small town newspaper but his style was pleasant surprise. He is a talented writer and his first article on the Crawford trial was back in 2002. He has had plenty of time to do research.

The trial concerns the deaths of two women of wealth women, murdered in their home in northern Virginia. Suspicion immediately falls on George Crawford, recently fired from his position as their chauffeur, and Paul Boeing, the brother of one of the woman who the town saw as “effeminate”. Given that the murder was in the old South and Crawford was black, he was the suspect the police pursued.

Luckily for him the police could not find him, as Bradley points out this was the era, and an area known for lynchings. When Crawford is finally found and arrested in Massachusetts the NAACP’s new legal strategy to challenge Jim Crow takes up his case. This is not Dred Scott or Roe v Wade but it is an important case. Several Southern states took notice and began putting African-American men into the jury pools immediately. The Scottsboro Trial in Alabama was going on at the same time as the Crawford trial and the book shows the distrust and class struggle between the “Talented Tenth’s” NAACP and the American Communist Party.

Billy Mitchell, the father of naval aviation, is a minor character in the story. He lived in the town where the murders took place and, being Billy Mitchell, felt the need to put himself into the investigation. Walter White, president of the NAACP and W. E. B. Du Bois, founder of the NAACP and editor of it’s magazine The Crisis, show up her also and the aftermath of the trial shows the fault lines in the organization and the unease with the small, slow steps their legal strategy was taking. Charles H. Houston, Crawford’s lead attorney at trial, was a law professor at Howard University. His students, including Thurgood Marshall, would bring that strategy to its high point twenty years after Crawford’s trial with Brown v Board of Education.

The persecution Houston endured after the trial was a revelation for me. Saving Crawford’s life was enough for Houston but a vocal minority of supporters were willing to put Crawford back at risk to argue against the exclusion of blacks from juries in court. They argued for this knowing that they had already won representation on juries in several Southern states and many Virginia counties directly from the efforts made on behalf of Crawford.

I enjoyed this book, it is a well written popular history that can put flesh on the bones of Depression Era history. Full disclosure I received my copy free as part of LibraryThing.com’s Early Reviewer program.

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