He Calls Me By Lightning

The Life of Caliph Washington and the forgotten Saga of Jim Crow, Southern Justice, and the Death Penalty

S Jonathan Bass (Author)

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Overview | Formats

A heroic reconstruction of the forgotten life of a wrongfully convicted man whose story becomes an historic portrait of racial injustice in the civil rights era.

Caliph Washington didn’t pull the trigger but, as Officer James "Cowboy" Clark lay dying, he had no choice but to turn on his heel and run. The year was 1957; Cowboy Clark was white, Caliph Washington was black, and this was the Jim Crow South.

As He Calls Me by Lightning painstakingly chronicles, Washington, then a seventeen-year-old simply returning home after a double date, was swiftly arrested, put on trial, and sentenced to death by an all-white jury. The young man endured the horrors of a hellish prison system for thirteen years, a term that included various stints on death row fearing the "lightning" of the electric chair. Twentieth-century legal history is tragically littered with thousands of stories of such judicial cruelty, but S. Jonathan Bass’s account is remarkable in that he has been able to meticulously re-create Washington’s saga, animating a life that was not supposed to matter.

Given the familiar paradigm of an African American man being falsely accused of killing a white policeman, it would be all too easy to apply a reductionist view to the story. What makes He Calls Me by Lightning so unusual are a spate of unknown variables—most prominently the fact that Governor George Wallace, nationally infamous for his active advocacy of segregation, did, in fact, save this death row inmate’s life. As we discover, Wallace stayed Washington’s execution not once but more than a dozen times, reflecting a philosophy about the death penalty that has not been perpetuated by his successors.

Other details make Washington’s story significant to legal history, not the least of which is that the defendant endured three separate trials and then was held in a county jail for five more years before being convicted of second-degree murder in 1970; this decision was overturned as well, although the charges were never dismissed. Bass’s account is also particularly noteworthy for his evocation of Washington’s native Bessemer, a gritty, industrial city lying only thirteen miles to the east of Birmingham, Alabama, whose singularly fascinating story is frequently overlooked by historians.

By rescuing Washington’s unknown life trajectory—along with the stories of his intrepid lawyers, David Hood Jr. and Orzell Billingsley, and Christine Luna, an Italian-American teacher and activist who would become Washington’s bride upon his release—Bass brings to multidimensional life many different strands of the civil rights movement. Devastating and essential, He Calls Me by Lightning demands that we take into account the thousands of lives cast away by systemic racism, and powerfully demonstrates just how much we still do not know.

Book Details

  • Hardcover
  • May 2017
  • ISBN 978-1-63149-237-2
  • 6.5 × 9.6 in / 432 pages
  • Sales Territory: Worldwide

Other Formats

  1. Book CoverHe Calls Me By Lightning: The Life of Caliph Washington and the forgotten Saga of Jim Crow, Southern Justice, and the Death Penalty


Endorsements & Reviews

He Calls Me By Lightning insists that we face the cost of lives that don’t matter to a persistent racial caste system. It reminds us that human endurance and irrepressible love outlast the glacial pace of change, and proves how much we do not yet know about our history.” — Timothy B. Tyson, New York Times Book Review

“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. . . . There is much in He Calls Me By Lightning that we needed to know. There is much, almost too much, 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.” — Colbert I. King, Washington Post

“This absorbing chronicle of deep injustice reveals how the Jim Crow South protected racial humiliation with distorted law and organized terror. Written with insider knowledge and analytical power, the book engages our senses to experience repression and challenges our intellect to appreciate the courage of resistance.” — Ira Katznelson, author of Fear Itself

He Calls Me by Lightning is riveting, heartbreaking, and vitally important. Through meticulous research and vivid prose, Bass brings the raucous world of Bessemer, Alabama, to life as it was in the Jim Crow era, and recovers the epic story of Caliph Washington’s struggle for freedom. This odyssey through a profoundly unjust legal system has a great deal to teach us all about the present.” — Patrick Phillips, author of Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America

“The stamina needed to read S. Jonathan Bass’s instructive book about justice systematically deferred in Bessemer, Alabama, is a measure of the reader’s determination to find a scintilla of humanity in a Jim Crow social order apparently unchanged even today” — David Levering Lewis, Pulitzer Prize winning author of W.E.B. Du Bois: A Biography

“On July 12, 1957, a white policeman, Cowboy Clark, was killed. It was never certain whose gunshot did it…Thus began a saga of fourteen years of at once a Dickensian legal nightmare and a clear-eyed indictment of criminal law in Alabama under Jim Crow. In Jonathan Bass’s gripping telling, the bleak houses were a series of grim prisons in which [Caliph] Washington awaited his execution…He Calls Me by Lightning tells of a case, happily in the past, that speaks loudly to injustices that still plague our criminal justice system.” — William S. McFeely, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and author of Proximity to Death

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