Colbert I. King, winner of the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, joined the editorial board of the Washington Post in August 1990, and was appointed deputy editorial page editor from January 2000 until his retirement in 2007. He continues to write a weekly column.
How is it possible in a country that prides itself on having a Bill of Rights, expresses reverence for due process and touts equal protection that a 17-year-old can be arrested, put on trial and sentenced to death, and then spend 13 years being shuttled among death row cellblocks in disgusting jails and prisons with his case under appeal, all for a crime he didn’t commit?
The answer contains some simple prerequisites: He had to be black, live in the Jim Crow South and be accused of committing, as one deputy sheriff put it, a “supreme offense, on the same level of a white woman being raped by a black man” — that is, the murder of a white police officer.
Teenager Caliph Washington, a native of Bessemer, Ala., was on the receiving end of all three conditions. And as such, Washington became a sure-fire candidate to suffer the kind of tyrannical law enforcement and rotten jurisprudence that Southern justice reserved for blacks of any age.
In “He Calls Me by Lightning,” S. Jonathan Bass, a professor at Alabama’s Samford University and a son of Bessemer parents, resurrects the life of Washington, who died in 2001 finally out of prison — but with charges still hanging over his head.
Bass, however, does more than tell Washington’s tale, as Washington’s widow, Christine, had asked him to do in a phone call. Bass dives deeply into the Bessemer society of 1957 where Washington was accused of shooting white police officer James “Cowboy” Clark on an empty dead-end street near a row of run-down houses on unpaved Exeter Alley.
Bessemer-style justice cannot be known, let alone understood, however, without learning about that neo-hardscrabble town 13 miles southwest of Birmingham.
Bessemer served as home to a sizable black majority, an entrenched white power structure and an all-white police department, consisting at the time of a “ragtag crew of poorly paid, ill-trained, and hot-tempered individuals” who earned less than Bessemer’s street and sanitation workers.
Bessemer was a town with its own quaint racial customs, such as forcing black men to “walk in the middle of the downtown streets, not on the sidewalks, after dark — presumably to keep them from any close contact with white women.”
Bessemer was a town where in 1944 the police forced black prisoners to participate in an Independence Day watermelon run. White citizens reportedly cheered as firefighters blasted the inmates with high-pressure hoses to make the race more challenging. Winners, it is said, received reduced sentences and the watermelons.
It was in that town that Caliph Washington was born in 1939, the same year of my birth in Washington, D.C.
Bessemer’s racial climate was no different the year Washington was accused of killing Cowboy Clark. The town’s prevailing attitude on race was captured at the time in a pamphlet distributed by a segregationist group, the Bessemer Citizens’ Council. Black Christians, the white citizens’ council said, should remain content with being “our brothers in Christ without also wanting to become our brothers-in-law.”
If ever there was a place to not get caught “driving while black” — which is what Washington was doing on that fateful night in July 1957 — it was Bessemer. And that night’s hazard appeared in the form of Clark and his partner, Thurman Avery, who were cruising the streets in their patrol car looking for whiskey bootleggers.
Washington was not one.
But his color was enough to get him chased, pulled over and told by Clark to “get out, boy.”
Washington’s color was enough to cause Cowboy to instruct him to place his hands over his head, to get him patted down and escorted to the rear of Cowboy’s patrol car, where a tussle ensued following Cowboy’s accusation that Washington had whiskey in his car; Washington’s denial; Cowboy calling Washington a “smart n-----”; and Cowboy getting so angry that he pulled his weapon and started to strike Washington in the head with the butt of the gun.
Three shots went off in rapid succession — the prosecution said Washington pulled the trigger; Washington’s defense said the bullet that ripped through Cowboy resulted from an accidental discharge — that it hit the car, ricocheted and tore into Cowboy.
Both sides agreed on one thing: Washington ran off.
It was a dash compelled by fear and a Southern-bred instinct that no good comes to a black man who defends himself against a white man.
Next, a massive manhunt, arrest in Mississippi, return to Bessemer courthouse, angry cursing white cops, lots of guns, plenty of hate and a jury decidedly not of Washington’s peers.
Washington, accused of committing a crime against a white man in Bessemer, Ala., entered a courtroom to face a white prosecutor, a white judge and an all-white jury. To have a black lawyer defend Washington in 1957, Bass observes, would have been seen as an affront to Southern traditions.
Bessemer had only one black lawyer: David Hood Jr., a Howard University Law School graduate. Hood and another black lawyer, a fellow Howard graduate, Orzell Billingsley Jr. of Birmingham, helped prepare Washington’s case for trial.
But they knew what Bass would later write in his book: that white supremacy and racial superiority were so deeply ingrained, Bessemer in 1957 was no place or time for a black lawyer to defend a black man. So, to represent Washington, the court appointed a white lawyer, giving him 14 days to prepare for the murder trial.
It was the start of a legal proceeding that stretched more than 13 years — a trek that, along the way, found countless opportunities to celebrate the triumph of racial traditions over justice.
Washington endured police interrogations without counsel; denial of the right to cross-examine witnesses; years of confinement behind bars without trial; more than a dozen scheduled dates with the electric chair, relieved by last-minute reprieves; blatantly discriminatory jury selections; and often languid and lukewarm efforts by the defense bar.
One notable exception in Bass’s recitation of Alabama judicial horrors is the role played by Gov. George Wallace. Morally opposed to the death penalty, Wallace granted Washington 13 stays of execution. But Wallace’s opposition wasn’t enough to stop him from letting other prisoners be put to death, and the governor denied Washington’s 14th petition for a reprieve.
I stop short of Bass’s sympathetic portrayal of Wallace.
It fell to federal Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr., a law school classmate and onetime friend of Wallace, to render justice. Johnson, not Wallace, stayed Washington’s execution. Johnson, not Wallace, recognized errors in the trial that found Washington guilty. Johnson, not Wallace, ordered Washington’s conviction and death sentence be set aside. It was Johnson, not the racially demagogic Wallace, who redeemed what little there was left of integrity in Alabama jurisprudence and set Washington free to live what was left of his life. And out of America’s sight.
In sharper focus, thanks to Bass’s painstaking research, is a picture of how Jim Crow legal systems operated at the local and state levels. Because of his diligent examination of the backgrounds, upbringing and pedigree of those white Southern men and women who enforced Deep South justice, we know more about how courtrooms and jails functioned, and how cops, lawyers, courts and juries combined to degrade the judicial system. Bass provides details, details and more details, to the point, at times, of being overdone.
There is much in “He Calls Me by Lightning” that we needed to know. There is much, almost too much, in this book that is simply nice to know. But we are left, at the last page, with insight into a history of America that can no longer be left unknown.
By S. Jonathan Bass
413 pp. $26.95