White Lies: The True Story of Clarence Brandley, Presumed Guilty in the American South (1991)

This is a story about racism in the USA. It begins with the rape and murder of a white schoolgirl and the immediate cruel assumption that the crime must have been committed by the nearest black man to the scene – Clarence Brandley, a janitor at the girl’s school. In the words of one of the town’s law officers: “Since you’re the nigger, you’re elected.”

Nick Davies spent two years visiting Conroe, in east Texas, mixing with the white folk who were sure that Brandley must be guilty and with the black families who lived in wooden shacks on the other side of the railroad tracks and who had seen all this before – the black man accused of some sexual contact with a white woman, the white men proudly gathering to inflict torment and death on their target regardless of law and order. Led by the old people on the black side of town, Davies discovered that this small town had a history of publicly murdering young black men, lynching them. Now, things had changed just enough that instead of using a flaming pyre or a rope over the branch of a tree, they had to use the courthouse, corrupting the process of justice, in order to kill their man.

Brandley’s case became a symbolic battle. On one side stood the traditional defenders of the old South: the Texas Ranger with his white Stetson and silver badge; the power-mongering District Attorney and the cynical law officers; the Mayor with his cigar as thick as a swan’s neck. Facing them was an army of underdogs from the black communities of Conroe and near-by Houston led by a handful of brave attorneys who dared to stand up for justice; a charismatic black community leader; a white priest-turned-detective; and a tough Texan private eye.

Pursuing the truth about the schoolgirl’s death through a maze of corruption and violence, Brandley’s supporters found help from a bizarre cast of unlikely heroes and finally confronted the grim truth about the town of Conroe and about the racism that still lurks beneath the surface of American life, hidden by the web of white lies.

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