Caliph Washington was minding his own business. But life took a nasty turn when the black Army veteran was pulled over one evening in Bessemer, Alabama, in 1957.
Officer James "Cowboy" Clark struggled with Washington, and in the process, Clark's gun went off. The bullet ricocheted off the vehicle and pierced Clark's stomach. Although innocent, as a black man in the Deep South, Washington was left with one option: Run.
In He Calls Me By Lightning, history professor S. Jonathan Bass uncovers Washington's search for justice. Officers arrested Washington in Mississippi and returned him to Bessemer, where he would serve decades for a crime he didn't commit. And despite then-Alabama governor George Wallace's famous stance in favor of segregation, Wallace proved something of a saving grace for Washington. Because the governor was staunchly against the death penalty, Washington was able to avoid the electric chair.
“Caliph Washington’s life has come to symbolize the violence, corruption, and racism that dominated not only in this city but also in the larger South,” Bass writes in the book's introduction. Through Washington’s story, Bass draws parallels between Bessemer and the South as a whole. Bass' research is evident—the book's bibliography lists hundreds of sources, including dozens of interviews, court cases, books and more. Even so, He Calls Me By Lightning reads more like a novel. It's a compelling story of a man's search for justice in the midst of America's civil rights movement. Bass is also the author of Blessed Are the Peacemakers: Martin Luther King, Jr., Eight White Religious Leaders, and the 'Letter from Birmingham Jail,' and with He Calls Me By Lightning, he shows again that truth can be just as compelling as fiction.