Cover image for Beneath a ruthless sun : a true story of violence, race, and justice lost and found / Gilbert King.
Title:
Beneath a ruthless sun : a true story of violence, race, and justice lost and found / Gilbert King.
ISBN:
9780399183386
Publication Information:
New York : Riverhead Books, [2018]
Physical Description:
416 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
Abstract:
From the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning bestseller "Devil in the Grove" comes a gripping story of sex, race, class, corruption, and the arc of justice. In December 1957, Blanche Bosanquet Knowles, the wealthy young wife of a citrus baron, is raped in her home while her husband is away. Journalist Mabel Norris Reese and an inexperienced young lawyer pursue the case, winning unlikely allies and chasing down leads until at long last they begin to unravel the unspeakable truths behind a racial conspiracy that shocked a community into silence.

"A small town. A big secret. In December 1957, the wife of a Florida citrus baron is raped in her home while her husband is away. She claims a 'husky Negro' did it, and the sheriff, the infamous racist Willis McCall, does not hesitate to round up a herd of suspects. But within days, McCall turns his sights on Jesse Daniels, a gentle, mentally impaired white nineteen-year-old. Soon Jesse is railroaded up to the state hospital for the insane, and locked away without trial. Crusading journalist Mabel Norris Reese cannot stop fretting over the case and its baffling outcome. Who is protecting whom, or what? She pursues the story for years, chasing down leads, hitting dead ends, winning unlikely allies. Bit by bit, the unspeakable truths behind a conspiracy that shocked a community into silence come to the surface. Beneath a Ruthless Sun tells a powerful page-turning story rooted in the fears that rippled through the South as integration began to take hold, sparking a surge of virulent racism that savaged the vulnerable, debased the powerful, and roils our own times still."--Dust jacket.
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Summary

Summary

"Compelling, insightful and important, Beneath a Ruthless Sun exposes the corruption of racial bigotry and animus that shadows a community, a state and a nation. A fascinating examination of an injustice story all too familiar and still largely ignored, an engaging and essential read." --Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy

From the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning bestseller Devil in the Grove, the gripping true story of a small town with a big secret.

In December 1957, the wife of a Florida citrus baron is raped in her home while her husband is away. She claims a "husky Negro" did it, and the sheriff, the infamous racist Willis McCall, does not hesitate to round up a herd of suspects. But within days, McCall turns his sights on Jesse Daniels, a gentle, mentally impaired white nineteen-year-old. Soon Jesse is railroaded up to the state hospital for the insane, and locked away without trial.
But crusading journalist Mabel Norris Reese cannot stop fretting over the case and its baffling outcome. Who was protecting whom, or what? She pursues the story for years, chasing down leads, hitting dead ends, winning unlikely allies. Bit by bit, the unspeakable truths behind a conspiracy that shocked a community into silence begin to surface.

Beneath a Ruthless Sun tells a powerful, page-turning story rooted in the fears that rippled through the South as integration began to take hold, sparking a surge of virulent racism that savaged the vulnerable, debased the powerful, and roils our own times still.


Author Notes

Gilbert King was awarded the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in Nonfiction for The Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America , which was also a New York Times bestseller and a finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. A featured contributor to Smithsonian magazine and The Marshall Project, King also writes about justice for The New York Times and The Washington Post . He lives in New York City.


Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

The perversions of justice under Jim Crow chart a devious path in this labyrinthine true crime saga. Pulitzer-winning historian King (Devil in the Grove) explores the aftermath of the 1957 rape of a white woman named Blanche Knowles, the wife of a wealthy citrus baron in Lake County, Fla., a locale notorious for trumped-up prosecutions of black men. A dragnet led by Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall rounded up African-American suspects, but then Jesse Daniels, a mentally impaired white teenager, was accused of the crime. Despite evidence that his confession was coerced, he was committed without trial to a hospital for the criminally insane. King follows the Daniels family's struggle to free Jesse for two decades as it played out against Florida's intensifying civil rights movement, untangling along the way the extraordinary web of lies that racism wove around blacks and whites alike (for example, Blanche's family dismisses a lead on a new suspect to spare her husband "the indignity of having a wife who had been violated by a black man"). At the story's center is the decades-long reign of terror of Sheriff McCall, a Klan leader who killed prisoners, beat suspects, brutalized interracial couples, and railroaded innocent people, and was opposed only by crusading journalist Mabel Reese, who braved death threats and bombings to help Daniels. Packed with riveting characters and startling twists, King's narrative unfolds like a Southern gothic noir probing the recesses of a poisoned society. Photos. (Apr.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.


New York Review of Books Review

"THE ARC OF the moral universe is long," Martin Luther King Jr. famously asserted, "but it bends toward justice." Well, perhaps. An alternative view is that progress on civil rights in the United States has been episodic and inconsistent, with victory often followed by backlash. The poisonous aftermath of the Supreme Court's great decision in Brown v. Board of Education, in 1954, forms the backdrop to Gilbert King's superb new book, "Beneath a Ruthless Sun." Rather than accept the justices' unanimous edict on school integration, much of the South responded with defiance in the courts and violence in the streets, especially in the backwoods. Florida has largely escaped the opprobrium heaped on the other states of the old Confederacy, but it's to the Sunshine State that King returns with a story of mind-boggling racism and cruelty. "Ruthless Sun" amounts to a sequel of sorts to King's "Devil in the Grove," which won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 2013. That book told the story of the aftermath of a 17-year-old girl's claim of rape in Florida's Lake County, in 1949, and the fate of four young African-Americans who were suspected of the crime. The new book also concerns a rape case in Lake County, this one in 1957, the victim this time the wife of one of the region's rising citrus barons. The connecting thread between the two cases is Sheriff Willis McCall, the chief law enforcement official in the county, and a figure of nearly incomprehensible evil. On the night of Dec. 17, 1957, Blanche Knowles called her lawyer to report that a black perpetrator had invaded her gracious home in Okahumpka. The lawyer reported the crime to the police, and McCall promptly put on the police radio his customary instruction in such circumstances: "Round up every nigger you see." His will was done, and the deputies took special pleasure in corralling Búbba Hawkins, whose chief crime was having an uncle who was trying to integrate the University of Florida College of Law. (Notwithstanding the Brown decision, and thanks to the reactionary Florida Supreme Court, Virgil Hawkins was never allowed to matriculate.) A few days after the crime, events took an unexpected turn. Even though Knowles described her attacker as black, McCall arrested a white man. The suspect was Jesse Daniels, a 19-year-old neighbor who today would be described as having a developmental disability (probably some form of mental retardation). Cornered by McCall's uniformed thugs, Daniels signed a confession. The hero of "Devil in the Grove" was a youngish Thurgood Marshall, the cagey grumpus in his days as a crusading lawyer. His counterpart in King's new book is far less famous but equally compelling. Mabel Norris Reese ran a struggling weekly newspaper in Lake County, and this middle-aged white woman had the courage and fortitude to challenge the authority of Willis McCall. She may have dressed with uncharacteristic fussiness for the flatlands of Central Florida, complete with "her bebopper's cat-eye glasses," but not even burning crosses on her lawn (and worse) intimidated her from her pursuit of McCall's misdeeds. (Watch for a Streep vs. McDormand brawl for the part.) Reese struck up a friendship with Daniels's beleaguered mother, and the pair did what they could to stop McCall from putting Jesse away. On the surface, King's choice of this case as an illustration of a racist system of justice might seem peculiar. After all, this is the story of a crooked Southern sheriff railroading a white man. But as the story unfolds, it exposes the sinister complexity of American racism. Joe Knowles, who was off on a tryst with another woman when his wife was attacked, let the authorities know that it wouldn't do for Blanche to have been raped by an African-American. The shame for her, and for him, would have been too great. So McCall obliged by manufacturing the case against the hapless Jesse Daniels. But then there's another twist. A black man named Sam Wiley Odom is arrested for a different rape in a nearby town, and the evidence makes clear that Odom also raped Blanche. So, in an especially macabre development, McCall and his allies hustled to have Odom executed for the second rape before he could be implicated in the first. Odom duly became the last person executed for rape in Florida's history. But what of Jesse Daniels? Even by Lake County standards, the case against him was weak, since it was based almost exclusively on his flimsy, and obviously coerced, confession. (Plus, Blanche said her attacker was black.) So McCall contrived to avoid a trial altogether by having Daniels committed to the State Hospital for the Insane at Chattahoochee; there, at the instigation of the sheriff, the doctors found that Daniels's mental state made him unfit to stand trial. And in that notorious hellhole, Daniels - who was never convicted of anything - rotted away year after year. The second half of King's book follows the long, frustrating labors of Reese, Daniels's mother and a handful of others, including the first African-American special agent of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, to free Daniels. As the 1960s yielded to the 1970s, Florida state government took on a more modern cast, and Gov. Reubin Askew demanded investigations of Sheriff McCall in Lake County. But McCall was repeatedly re-elected, and never convicted of anything. As for Jesse Daniels, he was finally released from Chattahoochee after 14 years, on Dec. 4,1971. A bill in the Florida Legislature to compensate his mother and him for this extended miscarriage of justice kicked around for months, until it was whittled down to $75,000 for Jesse and nothing at all for his mother. Jesse is still alive today, but he has moved away from Lake County. KING TELLS THIS complex story with grace and sensitivity, and his narrative never flags. His mastery of the material is complete, though he can't quite nail down the most provocative theory about the crime that started it all - that Joe Knowles paid Sam Odom to do away with his wife so that he could marry his mistress. King's occasional detours into such subjects as the history of the citrus industry and Dr. King's protests in St. Augustine (where he faced some of the ugliest crowds of his career) are welcome and illuminating. The author presents his tale as one of justice triumphing, of the good guys (and gals) coming out on top, of the arc of the universe bending toward justice. (Our 44 th president is also a great fan of that Martin Luther King remark, even if the aftermath to his time in office amounts to a refutation of it.) Perhaps Gilbert King needed a glimmer of hope to sustain him through years of toil on this terrible story. He concludes "Beneath a Ruthless Sun" with a quote from his hero, Mabel Norris Reese. The story, she wrote, "all worked out for the best." Not hardly, in my book. Jeffrey TOOBIN, a staff writer for The New Yorker and the chief legal analyst for CNN, is working on a book about Robert Mueller's investigation of President Trump. The story of a crooked sheriff railroading a white mem exposes the sinister tangle of American racism.


Excerpts

Excerpts

For Mabel Norris Reese, Wednesdays had a special routine. Wednesday was the day the Mount Dora Topic , the weekly newspaper that she and her husband, Paul, owned and ran, went to press. The alarm clock would go off at four a.m. in their house on Morningside Drive in Sylvan Shores, a small, upscale community of Mediterranean Revival and ranch homes along the west side of Lake Gertrude. Within the hour, Mabel would be barreling along the few miles to the Topic 's office in downtown Mount Dora. There she'd go over that week's edition, making corrections in the lead galleys, before heading back home to cook break­fast for Paul and their daughter, Patricia. Once Patricia had been seen off to school, Mabel would return to the office with Paul for the long hours ahead. Side by side, they would dress up the pages of the newspaper together. Harold Rawley, who ran the Linotype machine, would set the pages one metal line of type at a time, to be inked and printed later that night on the Old Topper, the Topic 's big press. Mrs. Downs, a seventy- two- year- old widow who had taken over the print work from her late husband, would stand in the hot air atop the press platform, feeding sheets of paper into the jaws of the loud, cranky machine that birthed the "inky babies," as Mabel called them. Sturdy and still stylish at forty- three, Mabel favored printed cotton shirtwaist dresses, which she sometimes wore with pearls, and with her bebopper's cat- eye glasses she was easily spotted out and about in old- fashioned Mount Dora. In addition to covering meetings, writing stories and weekly editori­als, taking photographs, and selling ads, Mabel worked the arm on the wing mailer and slapped name stickers on each freshly printed copy un­til, as she liked to tell Patricia, "the pile on the left goes way down and the pile on the right climbs to a mountain." (Patricia herself attended to the wrapping and stamping of the papers, and Paul and his brother deliv­ered the lot of them to the post office.) Mabel had performed this strenuous Wednesday routine more than five hundred times in the ten years that she and Paul had been publishing the Topic . She'd missed only two issues-- once when she'd been briefly hospitalized and once the previous summer, when she'd traveled to Illi­nois to accept a journalism award. But when, in the wee hours of December 18, rumors of a white woman's rape began to circulate, Mabel deviated from her normal Wednesday routine and instead followed her reportorial instincts. They took her to Okahumpka, where she'd heard that residents of North Quarters were being harassed. There she found that Sheriff McCall's deputies were not only terrorizing the residents but also arresting on suspicion virtually every young black male in the neighborhood. One of them described how Negro suspects were being rounded up and taken in by up to five carloads at a time. "They woke me up at two a.m. and told me I would get the electric chair if they didn't kill me beforehand," he said. Another Okahumpka resident told Mabel, "They took in thirty- three of our menfolk. Not just men, but boys, too . . . A body couldn't do anything but wait for 'em to come pounding on the door." By daybreak, Mabel had pages of notes to transcribe, and they reverberated with fear-- fear that, once again, the Lake County Sheriff's Department was indiscriminately rounding up young black men, and that, once again, violence would come of it. "A restlessness began to run through the quarters," Mabel wrote, "and it mounted steadily." Excerpted from Beneath a Ruthless Sun: A True Story of Violence, Race, and Justice Lost and Found by Gilbert King All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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