The Three Death Sentences of Clarence Henderson is the story of Clarence Henderson, a wrongfully accused Black sharecropper who was sentenced to die three different times for a murder he didn’t commit, and the prosecution desperate to pin the crime on him despite scant evidence. His first trial lasted only a day and featured a lackluster public defense. The book also tells the story of Homer Chase, a former World War II paratrooper and New England radical who was sent to the South by the Communist Party to recruit African Americans to the cause while offering them a chance at increased freedom. And it’s the story of Thurgood Marshall’s NAACP and their battle against not only entrenched racism but a Communist Party—despite facing nearly as much prejudice as those they were trying to help—intent on winning the hearts and minds of Black voters. The bitter battle between the two groups played out as the sides sparred over who would take the lead on Henderson’s defense, a period in which he spent years in prison away from a daughter he had never seen.
Through it all, The Three Death Sentences of Clarence Henderson is a portrait of a community, and a country, at a crossroads, trying to choose between the path it knows is right and the path of least resistance. The case pitted powerful forces—often those steering legal and journalistic institutions—attempting to use racism and Red-Scare tactics against a populace that by and large believed the case against Henderson was suspect at best. But ultimately, it’s a hopeful story about how even when things look dark, some small measure of justice can be achieved against all the odds, and actual progress is possible. It’s the rare book that is a timely read, yet still manages to shed an informative light on America’s past and future, as well as its present.