An examination of an infamous 1957 conviction of a young, black Army veteran for the murder of a white police officer that more broadly delineates the struggle for civil rights.
In addition to digging up significant details on this important but little-known case, Bass (History/Samford Univ.; Blessed Are the Peacemakers: Martin Luther King, Jr., Eight White Religious Leaders, and the "Letter from Birmingham Jail", 2001) seamlessly weaves in a larger history of civil rights. On July 12, 1957, when James “Cowboy” Clark stopped black motorist Caliph Washington in the excessively corrupt city of Bessemer, Alabama, a struggle ensued. Clark ended up dead, and Washington fled, soon to be captured in Mississippi. Did Washington intentionally shoot longtime officer Clark during a struggle over Clark’s gun, or could the struggle be considered self-defense due to Washington’s fear that Clark intended to murder him out of racial hatred? Since the Alabama court system wanted to display at least the veneer of justice to the outside world, Washington went to trial. However, he received second-rate lawyering and faced an all-white jury. While on death row, Washington won a new trial due to courtroom irregularities. A second jury convicted Washington, who returned to death row. Under normal circumstances in Alabama, Washington would have been executed quickly at that juncture. However, the newly elected governor, George Wallace, despite his renown as a segregationist, felt uncomfortable with the death penalty, so he granted Washington reprieve after reprieve, which led to a second overturning of the guilty verdict. A third jury, no longer all-white, also convicted Washington. Appellate maneuvering continued for years until, finally, a judge ordered Washington’s release in 1971. The state refused to drop the case, but a fourth trial never occurred, and Washington lived an exemplary life of faith and family until his death in 2001. Throughout a skilled recounting of Washington’s travails, Bass offers extended riveting passages about the broader battle for civil rights in Alabama.
A stirring book that explores numerous aspects of racism in Alabama and the nation as a whole.