O.D. Henderson, a 25-year-old African-American man from Fairfield, worked at the Tennessee Coal and Railroad Iron Company. Mr. Henderson was not married and had no children, but he had two parents, Ben and Lillie Henderson.
On May 9, 1940, Mr. Henderson was walking to work when a coworker, M.M. Hagood, accused Mr. Henderson of bumping into him and knocking him down. Mr. Hagood called a nearby officer, named Glenn, over. Officer Glenn allowed Mr. Hagood to beat Mr. Henderson on the street. Officer Glenn then dragged Mr. Henderson to the local Fairfield police station where he, Mr. Hagood, and another police officer, Thomas Nelson, continued to beat him. Mr. Henderson’s face became swollen, bruised, and unrecognizable. Other officers watched and did nothing to stop the beating. A police officer who was a witness reported hearing Mr. Henderson say, “let me explain,” and “have mercy on me.”
Mr. Nelson shot Mr. Henderson three times in the chest, killing him. The town coroner labeled the death an “unjustifiable homicide.”
In the aftermath of the shooting, a local Methodist minister, Ted Hightower, urged the city council to hold a special meeting to discuss the shooting. Mayor Claude N. Gilley called for the officers to be dismissed from the force. Mr. Nelson was suspended for 30 days pending an investigation. The Fairfield City Council held a meeting to discuss whether three officers who were involved should be dismissed from the police force. During the deliberations, Sergeant W.G. Cook testified that 20 or 30 beatings had taken place at the Fairfield police station in the three years he had been on the force. Despite the history of systemic violence that was exposed, the resolution to dismiss the officers lost by one vote.
Ultimately Mr. Nelson was charged with first-degree manslaughter. The local NAACP unit and other officials rallied together to press for a conviction. However, Mr. Nelson was adamant that he acted in self-defense. As in other cases where a white man was judged by a jury of his peers, it didn’t take long for the jury to render a verdict of not guilty.
“Four Charged With Jail-House Murder,” The Montgomery Advertiser, May 25, 1940, page 2.
“O’Dee Henderson,” The Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project .