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Washington CNN  — 

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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.

clarence henderson book cover

Which themes strike you as particularly salient today?

I think that the paranoia and oppression that are evident in this story are things that we still deal with, particularly when it comes to ideas of what constitutes justice and when race becomes involved or when socioeconomic class becomes involved.

The response when Buddy Stevens was killed was to grab the African American community and shake it until they (White Carrolltonians) got a suspect. They were literally taking Black men off the street, putting them in secret jails and sweating them until they could come up with someone they thought that they could legitimately call a suspect. That person, eventually, was Clarence Henderson, even though eventually an all-White, Deep South state supreme court would turn those convictions back on lack of evidence.

But still, the community’s paranoia – racial paranoia and panic – was so driving the investigation that, even with the weakest of cases, they were convicting this man over and over again. And this is something that we’ve seen before, and that we continue to see.

To write this book, you had to use a variety of sources, including the Black press’s coverage of the murder and subsequent trials. Did your research reveal anything to you about the juncture of race and media?

There was this multiplicity of voices – there was the local press, the Black press, the Atlanta press, the national press – that all had an interest in the trials, and that provided me with an opportunity to triangulate different perspectives and get a narrative out of them.

I found that the Black press – the Daily World and the Black news service that provided accounts to, for instance, the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier – gave me the voices of Black people whom the White press had ignored, by and large. And those sources were the hardest to come by because Black voices didn’t find room in most White mainstream press stories.

There were two very courageous Black attorneys who carried Clarence Henderson through his first appeal and his second trial who don’t show up, by and large, in court transcripts. They don’t show up in the White press. I had to rely on the Black press to enliven the book with their voices.

What do you want people to take away from your book?

Because I was trained as a historian before I became a journalist, I want people to really understand the complexity of our past, and how that complexity echoes through to the present. That’s the whole purpose of studying history, to ask, What lessons can we wring from the past that can help us understand our present?

I think that we have a pretty uncomplicated view, by and large, of the immediate postwar period. Because we look backward on it, we can see the America that the ’50s built. But in the ‘50s, nothing was given. There was no indication that we were going to emerge from that in any way that we thought would be healthy in terms of our daily lives or in terms of our political culture. There was real fear and pressure driving a lot of decisions and a lot of behavior during that period.

Someone asked me, Who are the heroes in the book? And I don’t know that there are heroes in the book. I think that there are people who do heroic things, but I think that these are people who were making decisions without the benefit of knowing how it was all going to come out. And so sometimes they make those decisions in ways that are confoundingly wrong, and sometimes they make them in ways that are amazingly heroic.