A Story of Race and the Last Military Executions at Fort Leavenworth
Uncovers the hidden world of the military legal system and the intimate history of racism that pervaded the armed forces long after integration.
Richard A. Serrano reveals how racial discrimination in the US military criminal justice system determined whose lives mattered and deserved a second chance and whose did not. Between 1955 and 1961, a group of white and black condemned soldiers lived together on death row at Fort Leavenworth military prison. Although convicted of equally heinous crimes, all the white soldiers were eventually paroled and returned to their families, spared by high-ranking army officers, the military courts, sympathetic doctors, highly trained attorneys, the White House staff, or President Eisenhower himself.
During the same 6-year period, only black soldiers were hanged. Some were cognitively challenged, others addicted to substances or mentally unbalanced—the same mitigating circumstances that had won white soldiers their death row reprieves. These men lacked the benefits of political connections, expert lawyers, or public support; only their mothers begged fruitlessly for their lives to be spared. By 1960, John Bennett was the youngest black inmate at Fort Leavenworth. His lost battle for clemency was fought between 2 vastly different presidential administrations—Eisenhower’s and Kennedy’s—as the civil rights movement was gaining steam.
Drawing on interviews, trial transcripts, and rarely published archival material, Serrano brings to life the characters in this lost history: from desperate mothers and disheartened appeals lawyers, to the prison doctors, psychiatrists, and chaplains. He shines a light on the scandalous legal maneuvering that reached the doors of the White House and the disparity in capital punishment that was cut so strictly along racial lines.
““Serrano paces his slim account for maximum suspense, but Bennett’s execution feels increasingly foreordained, particularly when the putatively liberal John F. Kennedy declines to second-guess his predecessor. The author’s scrupulous research ably captures a shameful time during the military’s halting journey toward integration. A compact, engrossing historical meditation with clear relevance to current controversies over race and punishment.” —Kirkus Reviews “An important contribution to the historiography of race and justice.” —Publishers Weekly “Serrano presents a harrowing and necessary corrective chronicle.” —Booklist “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. It’s a book that manages to be both dark and enlightening.” —The Progressive “Richard A. Serrano brings to life a shamefully overlooked episode in American history. In the shadow of upheavals in Montgomery, Scottsboro, and Little Rock, the US Army quietly maintained its own lethal regime of white supremacy. It is a chilling portrait of the federal government in the early years of the civil rights movement. Meticulously researched and humanely written, Summoned at Midnight masterfully unravels a forgotten history of racial injustice during the twilight of Jim Crow.” —Daniel LaChance, author of Executing Freedom: The Cultural Life of Capital Punishment in the United States “Summoned at Midnight brilliantly brings to life a tragic and forgotten chapter of American history, when the US Army was still plagued by Jim Crow even on the cusp of the civil rights movement. It is a heartbreaking reminder that progress is often halting and that iconic historic figures were sometimes guilty of moral cowardice.” —James Risen, author of Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War “Summoned at Midnight uncovers one of the darkest chapters in American history. It is a must-read for those seeking to understand the historical failures of the criminal justice system and how black soldiers fared within it. This gripping and devastating story about racism, inequality, and capital punishment by the US military is one I never knew and will never forget.” —Talitha LeFlouria, author of Chained in Silence: Black Women and Convict Labor in the New South”