People Wasn't Made to Burn

A True Story of Race, Murder, and Justice in Chicago

IN 1947, James Hickman shot and killed the landlord he believed was responsible for a tragic fire that took the lives of four of his children on Chicago’s West Side. Prosecutors hung the death sentence over Hickman’s head, but a vibrant defense campaign exposed how working poverty and racism led to his crime and helped win Hickman’s freedom.

With a true-crime writer’s eye for suspense and the historian’s depth of knowledge, Joe Allen unearths the compelling story of a campaign that was willing to stand up to Jim Crow well before the modern civil rights movement had even begun.

As deteriorating housing conditions and an accelerating foreclosure crisis combine to form a hauntingly similar set of factors as those that led to the tragic fire that claimed the lives of James Hickman’s children, Allen’s book restores to prominence a previously unknown individual whose story has profound relevance today.

About the author

Joe Allen is a frequent contributor to the International Socialist Review and a long-standing activist, based in Chicago.

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Reviews

"James Hickman was one of the hundreds of thousands of black Mississippians to move to Chicago in the 1940s. The nightmarish tragedy that befell the Hickman family there, as well as the actions of the dedicated activists who fought to save Hickman's life by revealing the institutional foundations of that tragedy, are vividly depicted in Joe Allen's important and moving history. Hickman's story illustrates the toxic nature of racial segregation and economic exploitation. The outraged community that united to support Hickman is a refreshing reminder of people's power to organize for change."
--Beryl Satter, author, Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black Urban America

“In a remarkable feat of historical excavation and taut storytelling, Joe Allen tells the incredible story of James Hickman, an African-American man who struck back after a black Chicago slumlord and arsonist decimated his family and nearly destroyed his life. A stark look into a past of big city racism and poverty that we shouldn’t forget—and an important contribution to the history of social justice in America.”
--Alex Heard, author, The Eyes of Willie McGee

"Astonishing.... People Wasn't Made to Burn does nothing less than reinvent the true-crime genre.... 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 book's end, Allen relates the Hickman case to our own troubled times."
—Dave Zirin, the Nation

"[A] remarkable book... Allen tells the story in admirably straightforward fashion...[painting] a horrific portrait of the inhumane conditions in which blacks were forced to live in the post WWII Chicago." -- Rick Kogan, Chicago Tribune

"We cannot ignore and we dare not forget the willful damage that racial bias did to African-American men, women and children who lived in the Northern cities of America during the 20th Century. Invidious discrimination fed the roots of poverty. It was also the whetstone that so often sharpened the humanity and staunchness of those who endured and survived it. Joe Allen’s book, People Wasn’t Made to Burn, presents the 1947 Hickman trial in Chicago and its revelations as a metaphor for racial prejudice and its effects on the lives of ordinary people. The book’s story tells of James Hickman’s frustration over his inability to get justice in the arson death of his four children, his subsequent killing of the landlord who was deliberately responsible for the fire, and the efforts of the heroic and conscience-arousing Hickman Defense Committee that enabled him to walk out of court a free man."
--Kenan Heise, author, Chicago Afternoons With Leon and co-author, Spoiled Rotten Day

“What I appreciate about Joe Allen’s work is that he demonstrates as a historian the power of information, meticulous, distilled, coherent, principled.”
--John Pilger, award-winning journalist and documentarian

Praise for Allen’s Vietnam: The (Last) War the U.S. Lost

“[Vietnam is] accessible where so many other books on the subject have not been. Furthermore, its comprehensiveness helps make sense of an often confusing historical period. Friends of mine who teach history to high school and college undergraduates often bemoan the lack of texts on this period that are written so that their students will read them. With Allen's new release, I think they have found their book.”
--Ron Jacobs, Znet

“An unflinching history of the United States involvement in the Vietnam war - America's motives, its cruelties, and why America ultimately failed to win the war, along with comparisons to the modern-day situation in Iraq...Not a politically neutral account, Vietnam: The (Last) War the U.S. Lost is carefully researched and deserves a thorough examination especially in today's era when the lasting harm America did in Vietnam is all too easily forgotten.”
--Midwest Book Review