Summoned at Midnight: A Story of Race and the Last Military Executions at Fort Leavenworth
By Richard A. Serrano Beacon Press. 240 pages.
Let us give thanks to the historians, who refuse to let the things we would just as soon forget be forgotten. I am reminded, for example, of Steve Lehto, an attorney who wrote a seminal 2006 book on the 1913 tragedy in which seventy-three people, including about sixty children, were crushed to death at a union holiday party in Calumet, Michigan, after someone caused a panic by screaming "Fire!" into a crowded room. Woody Guthrie wrote a song about it, but got some things wrong; Lehto felt the need to get them right.
Richard A. Serrano, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former reporter for The Los Angeles Times, is cut from the same cloth. His new book, Summoned at Midnight, tells the important but overlooked story of the role of race in the fates of former soldiers sentenced to death by the military. Its a book that manages to be both dark and enlightening.
From 1955 to 1961, the U.S. military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, housed a total of twenty U.S. soldiers condemned to die. Eight of them were white; all were eventually released. The remaining twelve were black, nine of whom were put to death.
Summoned at Midnight--the reference is to the military's practice of conducting executions as soon into the prescribed day as possible to prevent any last-minute reprieves from mucking things up--tells the stories of these soldiers, in particular that of a black convict named John Bennett.
Bennett, who clearly suffered from mental disorders, was convicted of rape, despite real doubts about his guilt and the reliability of his confession. In Austria, where the rape occurred, death was not even a prescribed punishment, but it was allowed under military law. The jury that court-martialed Bennett and sentenced him to death consisted of nine military officers, all white.
According to Serrano, two other U.S...