Our Voices

RFKHR Book Club spotlights Elizabeth Hinton’s ‘America on Fire’

Yale professor of Law Elizabeth Hinton has advocated for structural transformation as a more effective solution to violent crimes and improving America’s race-relations. “More police and more prisons doesn’t work to keep people safer,” Hinton said on Friday Sept. 29 while discussing her book, America on Fire at a live virtual event organized by the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Board and Leadership Council Book Club and moderated by Elisa Massimino, a visiting professor of law and executive director of the Human Rights Institute at Georgetown University, and secretary of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights board of directors.

The award-winning author called on policymakers to revisit the recommendations of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders established in July 1967 by President Lyndon B. Johnson to investigate the causes of urban riots in the United States. “We need to rethink what public safety is. Public safety is to be safe from harm, but it’s also having water to drink, having access to water that’s not contaminated with lead. It’s living in a sanitary apartment that’s not riddled with rats and roaches,” she said. “And it’s also having a well-educated, informed public, that helps to increase and make our democracy more robust.”

America on Fire is a co-winner of the Book Award at the 2022 Robert F. Kennedy Book & Journalism Awards. Through in-depth research and powerful storytelling, the book presents a nuanced understanding of how racist police violence fueled the Black rebellions of the post-civil rights era from the late 1960s to the early 1970s and how the twin challenge of racial and economic inequality, which underpinned those rebellions, persists.

In the book, Hinton spotlights the violence that erupted across Black communities in the United States by painting a picture of the tragic story of Cairo, Illinois—a once bustling city situated at the confluence of the Mississippi river—before the outbreak of protracted violence in 1967. “Cairo is really, I think in many ways exceptional for the violence that the community witnessed, but it’s also really reflective of American racism,” she said.

Around the mid 1960s, Hinton explained, whites in Cairo weaponized their slight majority to oppress Black residents who responded with nonviolent, direct action until a tragic turn of events in 1967: the mysterious death of a Black soldier in the city’s jail. It triggered an eruption of violence, which was met with a disproportionate government response, unfair police intervention and the emergence of militia groups such as the White Hats, according to Hinton. “The response on the part of black residents was to arm themselves and self-defense,” she said, adding that Blacks continued their tradition of non-violent protests and began to boycott white-owned stores. Rather than yield to Blacks who were demanding racial and economic equality, Hinton said, the white residents abandoned their businesses and allowed the economy of Cairo to decline. She described it as a metaphor of why racism is bad for all. “This is an example of how racism kills everybody,” she said.

Hinton credited the Lemberg Center for the Study of Violence at Brandeis University for access to much of the information she gathered for her research. (The center was founded shortly after the November 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy.) Contrary to widespread media reports on the Cairo rebellions which often framed Blacks as violent aggressors, Hinton said her research unearthed local newspaper clippings that documented perspectives that had been lost. “When I begin to dig deeper, I saw what the story really was,” she said.

Massimino raised the question of negative media framing and coverage of this era of Black rebellions, noting how the same dynamic operates in the media today. Referring to victims of police brutality in the book, she said none of the fatalities were characterized as ‘murder’. “Nobody ever talked about it as even criminal,” she said. Hinton recounted the setbacks she encountered with the use of language while documenting police violence and killings in the book. “You know, the police have a monopoly on violence and their violence is always seen as legitimate. And for me, it was really frustrating in writing the book,” she said.

In significant ways, America on Fire deconstructs how the war on crime changed the landscape of law and order—tracking the expansion and militarization of the American police and the resultant criminalization of Black communities. This criminalization, Hinton said, set the stage for the mass incarceration and the disproportionate numbers of people of color trapped within the U.S. prison system today.

Despite the circumstances, Hinton said she continues to draw inspiration from the legacy of the civil rights movement when people protesting for racial justice and freedom were met with atrocious violence but remained resilient in the fight. “You just can’t give up hope,” she said.