In The Three Death Sentences of Clarence Henderson (Abrams, Jan.), reporter Joyner probes a 1948 murder case that led to an innocent Black man’s being scheduled for execution three times.
What most surprised you about what you learned?
The extent to which the NAACP became involved in Henderson’s defense. Coming to the aid of someone like Henderson was a distraction from the larger goal of building multiple cases attacking segregation. At the same time, there were moral and political reasons why cases like Henderson’s were important to the organization. Had Thurgood Marshall and the Atlanta NAACP chapter not stepped in, Henderson would not have had the lawyers he needed to overturn his initial conviction.
What was the hardest part of writing this book?
Casting it in such a way that Black people are seen as active participants in the story, because they certainly were. Jim Crow and institutional racism from the period left us with a spotty record in primary sources like newspapers and court records. Newspaper articles were more concerned about what the white actors did inside a courtroom than the Black lawyers, witnesses, or even the defendant. Fortunately, there was a vibrant Black press that covered much of the action.
Can wider lessons be drawn about the criminal justice system?
Black defendants still face unequal treatment in the justice system. According to the Innocence Project, Black men are twice as likely to be arrested for a sex offense and three times as likely to be accused of rape as white men. There’s no evidence that this is because they are more likely to commit such offenses. Ironically, another lesson is that the courts—fallible as they are—have historically been the engines of social and political progress in America. Ultimately, Henderson’s life was in the hands of a bunch of white men on the Georgia Supreme Court, and he prevailed.
What do you mean when you write that your aim is to connect this case to “the fractured postwar American psyche”?
We tend to think of the decade following WWII as a period of growth and optimism, but that’s a backward-looking and sanitized version of a complicated time. The end of the war unleashed tremendous amounts of bottled-up economic energy, but for the people living through it, the future remained uncertain. When I say the American psyche was fractured, I mean the country was trying to reconcile its hopes for the postwar future with its fears over cultural and social change and existential threats. In this way, I think the book’s themes are quite current.