What postwar racial paranoia tells us about criminal justice in the US today
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“The list of Black Americans who have recently been cleared of crimes they didn't commit is long.
Last week, a Tennessee judge exonerated 74-year-old Joyce Watkins, who had been wrongfully convicted of murdering her 4-year-old great-niece and spent nearly 30 years in prison.
In 1988, Watkins and her then-boyfriend, Charlie Dunn, were convicted of first-degree murder and aggravated rape, based on medical evidence that was later shown to be false. They spent 27 years behind bars before they were granted parole in 2015.
Dunn, who died suddenly in jail while he was waiting for his parole hearing, was posthumously exonerated.
Kevin Strickland, 62, was exonerated of murder last November after serving 43 years in prison. That same month, Anthony Broadwater, 61, who spent more than 16 years behind bars for a rape he didn't commit, was exonerated.
Together, these cases shine a light on a familiar yet no less sobering reality: The criminal justice system subjects Black Americans to decidedly unequal treatment.
Chris Joyner, an investigative reporter at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, explores this issue (among many others) in his enthralling new book, "The Three Death Sentences of Clarence Henderson: A Battle for Racial Justice at the Dawn of the Civil Rights Era," a combo of biography, cultural analysis and political history.
Drawing on his two-plus decades of experience in journalism, Joyner plumbs newspaper archives, court records and personal interviews to tell the story not just of Henderson -- a Black sharecropper in rural Georgia who in the late 1940s and early '50s was convicted and sentenced to death three times for a murder he didn't commit -- but of race in the US after World War II.
"Most Americans think of the period as one of boundless optimism as a country, weary of war and the Great Depression, cast its eyes to a brighter horizon," Joyner writes. "But I also knew it was a period of tremendous fear and a time of great social upheaval. America's unanswered questions about race, sublimated during the war, came raging back."
I recently spoke with Joyner about his book. The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Could you tell me a little bit about what you went in expecting to find, and what came as the biggest surprise?
This project is something I started developing like 25 years ago. I'd gone to West Georgia College in Carrollton as an undergraduate, as had my father and my mother, so we knew the area pretty well. When I got a job at the newspaper in Carrollton, my father said that not long after he went to school there, in the '40s, a local boy was murdered and that he didn't think that they ever figured out who did it. He said, You should pull down the old volumes of the Georgian and take a look.
And one evening after deadline, I did that. I pulled down the 1948 bound copy of the Georgian and started flipping through it. I was just stunned, because, for one thing, the coverage was so deep. It was taking up so much of that newspaper's space. It was clear that it was a really traumatic event for the community.
But as I started getting deeper into the story, I realized that there was a lot more going on than just a local murder. I was initially interested in it as a simple whodunit. But as I started peeling back the layers, I realized that all the major themes of post-World War II America were playing out on a small stage there. You had the postwar expansion and all the hope and optimism that came with it, combined with the fear and paranoia and political division. You could see the pressure that the community felt when faced with this random murder.
I've always viewed it as more than just a story of Buddy Stevens' murder and the trials of Clarence Henderson. It's really much more a story of who we were as Americans after World War II, and many of the themes are still with us today.
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