Book Review: On The Laps of Gods: The Summer of 1919 and the Struggle for Justice that Remade a Nation

From time to time we hope to post book reviews on this blog. Philip Blue our Senior Law Librarian has just written a very interesting review of a fascinating book. We hope you enjoy both the review and the book:

SUBTITLE: The Red Summer of 1919 and the Struggle for Justice That Remade a Nation AUTHOR: Robert Whitaker PUBLICATION DATE: June 2008 PUBLISHER: Crown Publishers PAGE COUNT: 400 pp.
ISBN: 978-0-307-33982-9 PRICE: $24.95 Dewey #: 976.7/88052 $2 22
Whitaker is the award-winning author of The Mapmaker’s Wife and Mad in America. His manuscript of On the Laps of Gods won the prestigious J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award. A journalist who usually writes on topics in popular science and medicine plunges full-force into the legal and historical significance of a U.S. Supreme Court decision overlooked by contemporary historians. Moore v. Dempsey, 261 US 86 (1923) concerned an appeal from five blacks who were convicted of murder in the first degree and sentenced to death by the Court of the State of Arkansas. The convictions stemmed from a 1919 Arkansas race riot in which a white man was killed and several people of both races were injured. Whitaker shows how NAACP attorneys struggled to defend the accused in the face of an all-white jury, prosecution witnesses who were whipped if they didn’t lie, a mob outside the courthouse threatening violence if there were no convictions, court-appointed defense attorneys who refused to call any witnesses, and a trial and deliberation that took less than an hour! Whitaker carefully traces the progress of the defendants’ federal appeal all the way up to a Supreme Court dominated by a group of crusty old men, a few of whom had a heart and mind to see through the sham of Arkansas justice, overturn the state court ruling, and set the men free. He praises Oliver Wendell Holmes, noting in particular the influence of the Boston Brahmin on the other justices, who finally agreed with Holmes that “counsel, jury and judge were swept to the fatal end by an irresistible wave of public passion.” Whitaker also notes the exemplary work of Scipio Africanus Jones, an NAACP attorney born a slave, whose effective arguments about the evolutionary theory of 14th Amendment interpretation, turned the tide in favor of the defendants. Highly recommended for academic and law libraries.

Philip Y. Blue, New York State Supreme Court Criminal Branch Law Library, First Judicial District, New York, New York

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