Gilbert King, Pulitzer Prize-winning author
Reflections on American Life: Pulitzer Prize winner Gilbert King talks criminal justice, long-forgotten history and the craft of non-fiction
On this episode of SPx, author Gilbert King joins Joe in the studio to share new insights from his book, Beneath A Ruthless Sun, and its connections to his Pulitzer Prize-winning second book, The Devil In The Grove. King shares the true story of the brutal man involved in both cases, Sheriff Willis McCall, and how King dug up long-forgotten/buried history through research and interviews. King talks about the craft of non-fiction writing, and how his stories grow from the simple premise of a crime to reflections on criminal justice and America itself.
- Gilbert King is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Execution of Willie Francis, Devil In The Grove and Beneath A Ruthless Sun
- King's non-fiction stories start as crime stories and quickly evolve into larger stories not just about the American criminal justice system, but the complexities of American life itself.
- King's first book centered around the story of Willie Francis, a 16-year-old African American boy from Louisiana who survived his execution by electric chair, leading to a Supreme Court case whose precedent resonates today.
- On consequences/endings: "When you write these kind of non-fiction stories they don't always have the kind of endings you expect if you read fiction or you watch Hollywood movies, you want the comeuppance, you don't want the bad guy to just keep getting away with it. The sad part about American history and a lot of these justice stories that I find that myself writing, they don't have those kind of happy endings..."
- "It's important for me to like latch onto somebody like Thurgood Marshall when maybe he's losing the case... but he's setting precedent and he's changing hearts and minds along the way."
- In Beneath the Ruthless Sun, King shares the story of Jessie Daniels, a mentally disabled teenager who is also framed for a crime he didn't commit. Daniels spends 14 years in a mental hospital before being freed.
- "My ultimate aim is to have people sort of follow and identify the protagonist like Thurgood Marshall and Mable Norris Reese and see what they were up against and what they were fighting for. And at a time where they were the least popular people in these areas."
- On writing books of consequence: "I think when I first started I didn't know what books I was going to be writing. But I really got addicted, I feel like there's so many of these kinds of stories out there that are untold, that are kind of lost to history."
- On future: "I'm 57 years old, these books take me a little more than five years every book, so I'm trying to weigh how many more do I have in me, and what do I really want to do with my life?... I like these kinds of lost crime stories that tell a bigger story about what America is really like."
- Solutions: King is often asked about solutions to problems in our criminal justice system - he points back to the truth and reconciliation commissions of post-apartheid South Africa as one model for healing.
- "[South Africa] offered immunity to people who would testify to all of the things that they'd done and just get these stories out there and get to the truth so that it would never be questioned. And here in the United States we've never had that kind of truth and reconciliation. So, it's really fallen on the laps of writers and lawyers to sort of explore these stories."
- How do we move the race conversation forward? King points to story-telling. King cites Ava DuVernay's "When They See Us," her dramatization of the story of the Central Park Five as one of those examples, as it recently led to accountability from the lead prosecutor of the case, Linda Fairstein.
- "Accountability came many, many years later, but it was because of the strength of storytelling and I think social media played a huge part of that too."
- Devil In The Grove, King's second book and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, documents the story of the Groveland 4, a group of four young African American men falsely accused of rape in Lake County, FL.
- The book was published in 2012, and while none of the Groveland 4 are living, Gov. Ron DeSantis formally pardoned the men in 2019. The book became a focus of both parties in the legislature, leading to a claims bill and formal apologies to the families.
- On Sheriff Willis McCall, Lake County Sheriff who later shot two of the Groveland 4 on the side of a road in an attempted execution. " I like to talk about Sheriff Willis McCall and what a dangerous, evil, violent sheriff that he was in Lake County, but you know, this never would have been possible unless every layer of Florida government had Willis McCall's back."
- "That's what you saw with the judge in the trial, the prosecutor, the governor was terrified of him too because he had bad information about the governor... And even the U.S. attorney in Tampa, he was a white supremacist himself."
- On Mable Norris Reese: "he moved down from Ohio and she was basically writing the Sheriff's version of everything that happened in the criminal justice system and she kind of had her blinders on...it was once Sheriff Willis McCall had shot the two Groveland boys on the side of the road like on the evening of their retrial, she saw that as a clear execution attempt and that's when she changed and her whole arch changes at that point."
- "For the rest of her life in Lake County which is another 10 years, she was constantly writing about McCall and the things that she faced. She had a cross burned in her front lawn that nearly caught her house on fire, her dog was poisoned... her house was bombed, her office was vandalized and destroyed."
- King makes parallels with our current political environment and the environment of the late 40's, early 50's, he shares how the problems of the criminal justice system have shifted while the cycles of history repeat themselves.
- Process: "I would say that a book, I'll say in general because I've done three of them now like this and they all took about five, a little more than five years. I write fairly fast and so I write these stories in one year, the other four was all research."
- "What I generally do is I move down to the places I'm covering and I stay for long amounts of time and I build relationships. And, you know, sometimes it's not just one interview with somebody, it's like 20 interviews."
- King's shout-out: Brian Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative: "He's a writer like me, he talks the talk, but he's also an attorney who has argued before the Supreme Court many times. His work with the Equal Justice Initiative and freeing innocent people from jail he really walks the walk. And he's the greatest public speaker I've ever seen."
"Accountability came many, many years later, but it was because of the strength of storytelling."
"What I generally do is I move down to the places I'm covering and I stay for long amounts of time and I build relationships. And, you know, sometimes it's not just one interview with somebody, it's like 20 interviews."
Table of Contents
(00:00 to 1:20) Introduction
(1:20 to 4:50) The Theme Of The Books
(4:50 to 7:00) The Evolving Justice System
(7:00 to 9:50) Being An Active Journalist
(9:50 to 11:45) Reducing Racism
(11:45 to 19:21) Revisiting Devil In The Grove
(19:21 to 24:44) Willis McCall
(24:44 to 26:19) White Supremacy
(26:19 to 32:38) Making Progress In Civil Rights
(32:38 to 35:07) Transference Of Racism
(35:07 to 40:11) The Writing Process
(40:11 to 43:55) Returning To Lake County
(43:55 to 48:04) Conclusion
Joe: Joining me on SPx is author Gilbert King, welcome sir.
Gilbert: Great to be here, Joe.
Joe: So, you’ve got three books out, you have the Execution of Willie Francis, Devil In The Grove, which won you a small award.
Gilbert: Yeah, a little one.
Joe: And your newest one Beneath A Ruthless Sun.
Joe: All three of those are around essential theme and would like to know what took you down that road?
Gilbert: Well, you know, they basically all start with crime stories. I’ve always been interested in crime stories, always been reading them and it feels like my whole life leading up to this moment has been like reading crime stories and like what can I do. And ultimately I studied writing and I started investigating the first one which is the execution of Willie Frances. And just to give you a little background about it you can tell why I would be interested in it. It was a story of a 16-year-old African-American in Louisiana back in the 1940’s. And back then they had a traveling electric chair. So, what they would do is they’d put it in the back of a truck, take it out of Angola which was the big prison and then ride around with it and execute people in various parishes and then bring it back to the main prison. That was the way they did it back then. And in this particular case a Cajun town in St. Martinsville, Louisiana, there was some political problems happening with the warden.
And so instead of sending out the usual execution team they send out a prisoner and a guard and said go take care of this execution, taught them how to work the electric chair real quick. But these guys were like drinking the whole night before, drinking into the morning, and they didn’t hook the chair up properly. So, when Willie Frances time came to sit in the chair and he got the electricity, it was a lot but not enough to kill him. And so, he survived his own execution. And they didn’t quite know what to do, you know, the governor was like we’ll fix the chair and put him back in. And one of the lawyers said I think there might be a problem with like cruel and unusual punishment or double jeopardy. And so, they decided to just throw him in a cell and wait and it went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. So, it’s still a case that is looked at today for cruel and unusual punishment. And so, when I heard that story I was like what? I never heard of this before, like someone survived their own execution? So, I started looking into the case and I found out when I went down there that it wasn’t quite what the official version was, there was another side to the story about the crime and the murder that he was accused of. And so, that just really all started it for me, it was just a matter of like just getting into this crime story, but in the same time learning about civil rights, the law, American history, and all of those things are just really interesting to me.
Joe: So, when you have that experience of wanting to dig into that, how much is solving the puzzle, and how much is the justice element of it?
Gilbert: I think it comes together, but it starts as I feel like I’m a detective in history and I’m going back and looking at this and I’m trying to track down witnesses, I’m trying to just see if there’s anything I can find that maybe has never been written before or is not the real version. And in this particular case I figured out early on some old timers were there, people in their 80’s. And they were the ones telling me no, that’s the official version of that, but we know what the real story is. And they went on to say that this kid was framed, and it was just a conspiracy. And so, pretty much that’s what the entire book is about. But it’s ultimately about the justice system, but it all really starts with a crime story, something to keep people really interested, like what happened here. And then by the end you say that’s not really fair, that’s not the American justice system I’m aware of.
Joe: You know, usually when you think of injustice, there’s sort of an anger or rage attached to it, right? And you can expel some of that by putting your work out and getting the word out there. But ultimately a lot of the dark side players in these books that you’ve written never came to justice, McCall being the big one, died pretty much having gotten away with it all.
Joe: And so, you know, A) the fact that you’re seeing how systemic this problem is and B) even when you reveal it can go on for 28 years or however long he was there and then onto the end of his life.
Joe: So, you know, how is that sort of evolved in you as you’ve gone and experienced this for so long and seen these injustices happen so deeply?
Gilbert: That’s a really great question because that is a common theme that you find when you write these kind of non-fiction stories they don’t always have the kind of endings you expect if you read fiction or you watch Hollywood movies, you sort of want the comeuppance, you don’t want the bad guy to just keep getting away with it. The sad part about American history and a lot of these justice stories that I find that myself writing, they don’t have those kind of happy endings that justice is there, but maybe in like a very slow way, it plays out overtime. So, it’s important for me to like latch onto somebody like Thurgood Marshall when maybe he’s losing the case, he’s losing the case, but he’s setting precedent and he’s changing hearts and minds along the way. And so, maybe there are changes to the justice system, which is exactly what happened with Thurgood Marshall. He didn’t win every case, but he got the Supreme Court to see them and hear them and that led to the changes later on. Mable Norris Reese was a reporter who worked on both of those stories in Lake County, and again, it took years. She doesn’t really have any victories, ultimately when it comes it feels kind of hollow because someone spent 14 years in the worse mental hospital of all time, and you know, basically wasn’t like they were- This man still served 14 years.
Joe: And you’re referring to your latest book when you tell-
Gilbert: Right, this is Beneath The Ruthless Sun, Jessie Daniels, a teenage mentally disabled kid is framed for a crime that he didn’t commit. And it takes 14 years for it to unwind. So, he basically loses his early life to this horrible prison. So, those are the kind of outcomes that you have. But my ultimate aim is to have people sort of follow and identify the protagonist like Thurgood Marshall and Mable Norris Reese and see what they were up against and what they were fighting for. And at a time where they were the least popular people in these areas.
Joe: And they become aspirational and ideally that drives other people to see some of that opportunity to do these sort of things in their own lives.
Gilbert: I think you’re absolutely right. I mean, I’ve talked to people who said, you know, I went to law school because I read your book in high school and that’s just what I wanted to do with my life. And I’m hearing now that same thing from people who want to be journalists. They want to either report on the criminal justice system or be like muckraker and just investigate business. And I think they’re just inspired by these stories because these people literally put their lives on the line. It wasn’t like today where you have journalist who are like the enemy of the people, but you know, in America there’s not really a lot of violence associated with that. Well, it’s kind of getting there with these rallies that you see where people are turning against journalists, but back in the day they were actually trying to kill them and kill people like Thurgood Marshall and Mable Norris Reese, so they were risking their lives for these stories.
Joe: So, once you’re in this loop, once you dig into to see these things that have happened, you have an outlet for being part of the solution, you get stories of having inspired people. I mean, can you write a book that doesn’t have that gravitas going forward or are you pretty much stuck the rest of your life because of that?
Gilbert: You know, it’s funny, but I think when I first started I didn’t know what books I was going to be writing. But I really got addicted, I feel like there’s so many of these kinds of stories out there that are untold, that are kind of lost to history. And I’m 57 years old, these books take me a little more than five years every book, so I’m trying to weigh how many more do I have in me, and what do I really want to do with my life? You know, I could write, I guess find more commercial topics that would be bigger sellers, but I’m just really at this point in my life I’m really not interested. I like these kinds of lost crime stories that tell a bigger story about what America is really like.
Joe: Right. I’m assuming, and you can correct me if I’m wrong that when you share your stories with people, even though you’re sharing them as a journalist, because it’s such a pervasive problem, but it’s also tough to define. And do you get a lot of people looking to you as to be thought leader and how to handle racial injustice and looking for solutions?
Gilbert: You know, I probably do. And it’s a difficult role to sort of get used to. I’m trying to like rely on people that I consider my idols or mentors, people like Brian Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative and seeing how they conduct themselves and what they really believe is important to do. And one of the things that these leaders talk about is truth and reconciliation, similar to what happened in South Africa after apartheid. They had a government commission that basically gave immunity to people and said we know that the system of apartheid led to some really horrible things, we don’t want these stories to be called fake news or to be believed by a certain population to be untrue or conspiracy. So, basically they offered immunity to people who would testify to all of the things that they’d done and just get these stories out there and get to the truth so that it would never be questioned. And here in the United States we’ve never had that kind of truth and reconciliation. So, it’s really fallen on the laps of writers and lawyers to sort of explore these stories. And so, I think that’s really what the thing that I try to think most about is before we can get to reconciliation, you have to get to truth. And I think there’s a value in digging out these stories and hopefully people will notice and say that we can’t tolerate, we don’t want that in our country.
Joe: In the United States, what have you seen as some of the most effective and natural evolution propellants, as we’ll call it, for reducing racism over the years?
Gilbert: You know, I don’t know if this is just self-serving, but I do believe that storytelling plays a really important part in that. And you know if you look, let’s just take for instance Ava DuVernay has a new documentary, or it’s a new dramatic series out on HBO, I believe Netflix, I can’t remember now. And it was about the Central Park Five. And now Ken Burns and his daughter did a documentary about that maybe 10 years ago and it was a brilliant documentary and it really exposed the whole truth behind it, but it shows you the difference between that ten years when Ken Burns did that film and now when Ava DuVernay did it, this is a dramatization of that story and yet the repercussions- You saw Linda Fairstein who was the prosecutor of the Central Park Five, she was forced out of all of these boards, her publisher abandoned her and basically said no more books with our company. And so, accountability came many, many years later, but it was because of the strength of storytelling and I think social media played a huge part of that too.
Joe: Yeah, and that’s something that I’ve always had not as clear of a lens into is I think we’ve gotten so good at storytelling and the media has become so effective and even the psychology of storytelling there’s just so many great films, and documentary style films, and series, and books, and they’re great at arousing the emotion. And then I always wonder, there’s a huge cliff for activating any kind of fix to that, but you’re telling me that A- And we mentioned early the aspirational characters that people could mold themselves after, B- accountability. What are some of the other things you would like to see more on the solutions front just to sort of continue to be the next part of the story that you start with revealing the problem?
Gilbert: Yeah, I think like the next phase for me would be some kind of government accountability and sort of taking these stories and saying we recognize that people are outraged by what we’re seeing, how are we going to correct that? One of the examples I would use is Devil In The Grove. So, that book came out in 2012, but slowly it began to gain some momentum and then people in the legislature started reading it as a book club thing and a couple of Democrats said, ‘We need to do something about this, let’s sponsor a claims bills and just correct the situation we’ll do apologizes and pardons.’ And all of a sudden you saw on the other side of the aisle a Republican book club started reading it too. And they had a competition to see if they could get more co-sponsors for this claims bills and the next thing you know it’s on the floor of the legislature and they’re voting on it and apologizing to the families of the Groveland boys. And just in January Governor Ron DeSantis and the clemency board officially pardoned the Groveland boys. It was like his second day in office. I don’t know really know if that would have been possible if this book had not been published because really it wasn’t being talked about at all.
Gilbert: And so, you know, people have told me that, but it’s still took years and it took a lot of grass roots efforts, petitions, and powerful people in Florida saying we want to get behind that, but you know, ultimately I think that it was a really great moment in Florida government. They looked at it and said well it’s true this is in the past, and an apology is not going to bring anybody back to life or get anybody out of prison, but you know, we are also a responsibility for the credibility of the criminal justice system and if we don’t acknowledge we got it wrong here, that has repercussions in the present and in the future. And I think they got that part of it right.
Joe: And the thing that jumped out there is I think the victim showed up at the courthouse and basically lobbied against that happening which you wonder if she even really remembers or which sort of leads to my next question is how much of history can you actually trust? You grow up reading the one history book that everybody in public school got and then all of a sudden you realize that man, that was just somebody sitting in a room.
Gilbert: Yeah, exactly. I mean, and that’s an interesting point because I was at that hearing. I think the Groveland families would call her the alleged victim. [Chuckle] But it was a very powerful moment because I tried to interview her about 10 years ago and she didn’t want to talk to me at all. In fact, she hadn’t talked to anybody in about 70 years since the case ended back in 1951. And she hadn’t spoken to anybody. And I tried to get her to talk and she basically said, ‘Let sleeping dogs lie.’ She didn’t want to revisit it. But 70 years later she came into the hearing room this past January and she basically stuck to the same story and she was against the pardons. But, you know, so much time had passed and the entire investigation that put in the book all this evidence that was never really available to the defense at the time, you know, I was really able to demonstrate that there was manufactured evidence, there was perjury, prosecutorial misconduct. It wasn’t so much about a he said/she said thing it was what happened to the Groveland boys in their trial and that was an abomination of justice. That was the reason for the pardons and ultimately the exonerations.
Joe: And it actually introduces a whole other layer of injustice because you have in government records, in FBI, in a box, you know? In an FBI building clear proof that this was a bad situation and it was wrong and it just sat there until you did your freedom of information request.
Gilbert: Yeah, and I think that was the most disturbing part of it. When I saw that, you know, I like to talk about Sheriff Willis McCall and what a dangerous, evil, violent sheriff that he was in Lake County, but you know, this never would have been possible unless every layer of Florida government had Willis McCall’s back. That’s what you saw with the judge in the trial, the prosecutor, the governor was terrified of him too because he had bad information about the governor, bribes and kickbacks, and all of that. And even the U.S. attorney in Tampa, he was a white supremacist himself. And so, there was no interest in protecting the civil rights of every member of American citizenry. So, that was I think the most disturbing of all this evidence that was there and it was never seen by anyone. The defense or anyone it was just thrown away in this box and sealed for 70 years. So, it was just kind of disturbing to see that.
Joe: I don’t know if there’s really a way to answer this, but what other interesting thing I thought about was transformation of Mable Norris Reese, right? So, she was really towing the line in McCall’s fiefdom, right? And then she had this transformation and ultimately she’s revealed as a good person. And so, to me it’s interesting in how it parallels America and that these people are not bad people, but they are racist. And so, what were sort of takeaways from that personal transformation in her that you could sort of expound out to society in the U.S.?
Gilbert: Yeah, I mean, I think that’s a really important point. And what happened was she moved down from Ohio and she was basically writing the Sheriff’s version of everything that happened in the criminal justice system and she kind of had her blinders on. And I find it hard to imagine how that was possible because she was a very bright woman. But she was reporting on the case and she really was taking the prosecution’s side of it continually. And I think it was once Sheriff Willis McCall had shot the two Groveland boys on the side of the road like on the evening of their retrial, she saw that as a clear execution attempt and that’s when she changed and her whole arch changes at that point. She’s determined to go after Willis McCall and write about the justice system without compromising herself anymore. And I think part of it was that she got called out by the U.S. Supreme Court and Justice Jackson’s opinion basically pointed to the media bias in Lake County, that was her. Her version of events was sort of tainting the jury pool and really tainting justice. And so, like when Justice Jackson wrote his opinion he said, “This case presents one of the best examples of one of the worst menaces to American justice.” And he wasn’t just talking about the Sheriff, he was talking about the way the case was covered, the way it was trumpeted in the media. And so, I think Mable really is a great example of that. And for the rest of her life in Lake County which is another 10 years, she was constantly writing about McCall and the things that she faced. She had a cross burned in her front lawn that nearly caught her house on fire, her dog was poisoned, someone threw a strychnine poisoned steak over the fence, her house was bombed, her office was vandalized and destroyed. Ultimately— this I found very really remarkable— Some white supremacist in the area opened up a rival newspaper and Willis McCall went around and just said to all her advertisers don’t advertise with Mount Dora Topic anymore if you know what’s good for you. And that was enough back then because Willis McCall was, you know, his threats were taken seriously.
Joe: And that actually the juxtaposition of all those facets of how hard it is to unconcrete that foundation. When people, I say that, that’s the weird position you end up being in is probably one of the leading experts just because of being in it on having any semblance of an idea of how to combat it, right? Because it’s so multi-faceted.
Gilbert: It really is. And you know, I think Mable was onto something. She recognized the importance, but you know, she was putting her livelihood on the line and also the economic security of her newspaper. They destroyed her newspaper, she had to leave town, leave the county. And so, she faced a tremendous amount of difficulty, it wasn’t easy. All of that reporting on Willis McCall, I mean, Willis McCall had friends and things were happening to people who stood up to Willis McCall. She liked to say that her greatest insurance policy was that if anything happened to her everyone would know it was Willis McCall. I don’t know why she felt safe about that because he didn’t care, he had been investigated 49 times for civil rights violations and he beat every single one of them. So, you know, he was protected in the state of Florida.
Joe: If you look at the whole landscape- And I know Florida is not south of the south as they say, but…
Joe: But if you would have sort of map the landscape of we’ll just all go East of the Mississippi, how many McCalls were there do you think at that time? I mean, how many didn’t have a Gilbert King to ruin their day?
Gilbert: Yeah, you know, I think that’s a great question. And the reason why sometimes people ask me, you know, what was it about Willis McCall? There were other sheriffs quite alike that, I don’t think there was any sheriff as violent that I’ve come across at all. But there were other sheriffs in that vein. But Willis McCall liked to call attention to himself. And so, he would be out there in the press speaking a lot, basically challenging the government to come after him saying I have nothing to hide. He would say things like you can stick a knife in my back and I’m like a gator, I can just pull it right out, you know, that kind of stuff. And it was kind of true, I mean, he had beaten every single investigation. I think he was unique, but not completely unique.
Gilbert: I don’t think there was anyone as violent as him, but because he called so much attention to himself and all of these investigations happened because of him, they were all sealed, so nobody ever really saw them. There was no consequences. So, when I go through these, you know, file a freedom of information act request and I go through it, I find people in his sheriff’s department who are informants for the FBI and they’re telling about things he did-
Gilbert: Things they’d witness and showing the FBI photographs of killings. And so, it’s a pretty detailed file that he’s left behind in his wake. I don’t think he expected anyone to ever see these, but you know, they’re there. And I’ve done two books about Lake County so I’ve gone through everything. And he was much worse than I even thought when I was doing the first, in fact, I thought maybe I would make him minor character in the second book because I didn’t really want to revisit his life again. And I just saw all the things he was doing. You would have thought that after all of that attention after shooting the two Groveland boys, going on the front page of all these newspapers across the country that he might have been chastened a little bit to maybe just be a little more careful, but he actually went the other way. He was more emboldened and he got more violent after that.
Joe: Again, we have to subtract that, because I don’t want to make this a judgement thing subtract out the evil piece of it, but more if we look at him as McCall the politician, you know, should we say that he has a parallel style to any other politicians today?
Gilbert: Well, you know, it’s interesting that you say that because at the time I was writing Beneath The Ruthless Sun it was the election of 2016 and so you were inundated with election news and Trump was in the news every single day.
Gilbert: And it recalled to me the times where he would say enemy of the people, fake news, and just gaslighting the press and just trying to make them appear to his base as just totally unreliable, printing lies, and that’s exactly what Willis McCall was doing with Mable. He would call her Red Mable, accuse her of being a communist.
Joe: So, actually put the nickname at the beginning of the other name which again is a pretty massive parallel, right?
Gilbert: Yeah, he’s just doing the nicknames thing.
Gilbert: I would say that Willis McCall believe it or not was much more sophisticated. He had a real plan to survive. I think Trump is kind of winging it and overwhelming people with his comments, but Willis McCall had a very specific goal and he would sort of play to the FBI’s paranoia about the threat of communism and he would just start labeling all his enemies communist. And it really did work, it kept the FBI off his back. You know, Trump, I would never accused of murdering something, but he did famously say that I could stand on 5th Avenue and shoot someone and not lose any of my support. And, you know, I think there is some truth to that and that’s definitely the case with Willis McCall. When he shot the Groveland boys some reported said, you know, what’s this going to do with your politically career now? This is a big story, you’re responsible for these kills, you’ve got an election coming up, do you think you can win another term? And he said I think I can win seven more terms because of this. I mean, that’s how bold he was and he was not wrong.
Joe: So, how do we deconstruct that? How does that work?
Gilbert: Well, I think basically the main problem that you see, and you still see it today, the sheriff is often the most powerful person in the county, so judges need the support of the sheriff in order to be elected. And because the sheriff is elected himself he is answerable to the elector. And at that time in Lake County the majority of the elector supported that law and order strong white supremacist in office, and that’s what it was.
Joe: So, he sort of hijacked the ideal and put that forth in a winning way and then slipped in all these other beliefs that they had.
Gilbert: I think hijacking the ideal is a great way to put it, that’s exactly what he did. I mean these sheriffs are usually put into place by the money, the citrus barons in Willis McCall’s case. And I remember working on this book thinking to myself, you know, this is pretty easy, just follow the money and that’s where it’s- You know, and this is a formula that kind of works. Follow the money and that’s where the power is and that’s where some of these decisions are going to originate, but what I came to find out is that as powerful as the citrus barons were, you know, and when the clans started burning down the black homes in Stuckystill outside of Groveland, you saw the white citrus barons move in to help. They called in the national guard, they sent trucks, they wanted all the workers moved to safety. And basically, it wasn’t because they were racially enlightened, most of them, it was because they were protecting their business interest. You know, Florida had already seen Rosewood, Ocoee and some of these mass exoduses. And when you have an exodus like that it hurts your labor. So, entire agricultural communities can be destroyed if there is an exodus of labor. And the people in Groveland were smart enough they did not want that. So, they end up protecting African American force. What happened as a result of that was the clan, large part of the electorate threatened the rich business owners and citrus barons, basically said if you talk to the FBI we burn down every business you own. And that was where the power was, it was the electorate. And Willis McCall knew that and he kind of had to play both sides of the fence.
Joe: Interesting. And there is an equivalent to that today which is reputation, right? Because we’ve seen people’s political careers be taken up or down with the words, or slanders, or endorsements, or whatever. So, that leverage still exist for sure.
Gilbert: Absolutely. And it’s interesting to see people get emboldened when they don’t lose any popularity and they just start saying these things and they realize their base loves that and that’s what happened to Willis McCall. They love to hear him talk tough and just sort of say I’m a law and order sheriff. These are all code words for I’m going to keep the black man in his place. That was what he was running on, that’s a lot of the way these sheriffs existed. I mean, I met with Stetson Kennedy once, I was talking to him while I was doing some research for Devil In The Grove and he was a famous reporter who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan and he did a lot of writing about civil rights. And he said something that I thought was really powerful and true. He said, you know, after the civil war the uniform of white supremacy was the white hood and robe. And as you moved along further away from Reconstruction into the 20th century that the uniform changed and it became the uniform of law enforcement. That was the uniform that protected white supremacy in the South. And that’s exactly what you see, you see less lynching, more death penalty, so if you do the kind of things that were going to get you lynched in the 1890’s and early 1900’s as you move away to the 20’s and 30’s it’s no longer a lynching, it’s more of a very fast, speedy trail where you’re convicted and sent to the electric chair. And so, that was really what the role of the sheriff’s department was, for the most part, in the South.
Joe: Can you give your observations on then there are a trajectory in general? So, say we start in the 30’s 40’s or just go back a 100 years till now, where do you think we’ve made the most progress and where do you think we’re the slowest?
Gilbert: There’s two parts to that question. I think one of the things is sometimes you look at the criminal justice system- I remember when Devil In The Grove came out, it came out within a week or two of when Trayvon Martin was shot. And I remember going around doing talks and people saying nothing has changed, nothing has changed, it’s the same as it’s always been. And I remember thinking about that and if you read Devil In The Grove you see that the criminal justice system that existed in the 1940’s in the South was horrible. I mean, it’s unrecognizable because if you’re used to watching television shows or reading novels, this doesn’t look anything like what you’re seeing in a courtroom. And so, it’s gotten so much better than that thanks to the people like Thurgood Marshall nowhere near perfect, you know, now we have a system of mass incarceration which really didn’t exist in the 30’s and 40’s. It’s shifted, the problems have shifted. Segregation, that’s not gone, it just looks different, now it’s like an economic segregation. So, we still have the problems, but it’s important to recognize how much better things are because when you go back and look at it, it’s untenable. The second part of I think that answer is history tends to go in cycles. And I’ll use this as an example which I think illustrates it really well and this came up while I was researching Beneath The Ruthless Sun. So, that story takes place in the wake of Brown Versus Board 1954. You could argue that’s the most important civil rights case of the 20th century. Thurgood Marshall actually argued it was the desegregation of the public schools.
It was a nine – nothing decision, very important for civil rights. What happened in the wake of Brown Versus Board was you saw the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan. You saw the birth of these White Citizen Councils, like 300,000 members across 11 states. And these were like Thurgood Marshall referred to them as the Uptown Clan, these were lawyers, doctors, politicians, all of them opposed to desegregation. And so, the amount of racial terror that increased following Brown Versus Board was really significant. Bombings across the South, resistance, threats constantly made to parents and school members, board members. And so, you have like this two steps forward with Brown but then you have one big step backwards. But I remind people that the reaction to that racial terror that followed Brown was you move into the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s. And so that was another two steps forward. And I think that we have that in cycles that exist today.
And for example, let’s just use the example of the election of Barack Obama and the re-election. Forget what you think about him politically, that’s not really part of the point, the point is that was one of the most significant things that the United States could have done was elected and African American in a free election, twice. And the reason you know that’s significant is you have civil rights leaders who have spent their life dedicated to the cause like John Lewis saying they’d never thought they’d see the day where the United States elected an African American as a president. So, if they’re surprised by it and also very proud of it, there’s no doubt that was a significant moment in American history. I think there’s also a step backwards, a reaction to that. I don’t think Charlottesville would have happened in any other time unless there was a reaction to an African American president and a correction – was it too soon? This is what people sort of, you know, articulate when you talk about – it was too soon, the country is not ready for an African Amercan – What does that even mean, not ready? How do you get ready for something like that, I never understood that sentence. But the reaction is not surprising given the cycles of history.
Joe: So, to me that is social evolution, and perhaps this was the big disconnector in the last election is there are people who exist in a certain way who think we’re perhaps a lot further along than we are and then they’re shocked and surprised when these things happen and they were shocked obviously by the election of the current president. You know, is that the case where we sort of have a two different currents running at two different speeds and they’re just not really connecting with each other?
Gilbert: Yeah, I really think so. Obviously, a lot of things could have happened that would have made that not happen. So, let’s just look at the Trump election, it was very close. I mean, he lost the popular vote by millions but yet he won electorally. So, it almost didn’t happen.
Gilbert: And there was some last-minute things that happened and James Comely and Russian involvement that could have made it different, but I think those currents always would have been running anyway. And I think the reason why is because we’ve never really addressed it as a nation. We’ve never had our moment where like in Germany, you can’t fly a Nazi flag out in Berlin or Hamburg, but you can fly a Confederate flag in the United States, and why is that? When you go to West Point the U.S. military Academy, you don’t see confederate flags, you don’t see statues to Robert E. Lee, that doesn’t exist. They’re considered as traitors to the United States of America and we don’t display those flags or memorabilia or statues of Confederate heroes. But as a nation we’ve never really addressed the origins of slavery and race in America. So, I think these things are always these currents you have running and certain events can tip them off. And, you know, I just think that there’s truth and reconciliation commission that you saw following apartheid in Rwanda and in South Africa we’ve never had a government program like to just sort of accept that this was wrong and maybe some form of reparations. You know, it doesn’t have to be just cutting checks out to everybody, but there could be programs designed to make up for maybe the land that was stolen from black farmers, those kind of things.
Gilbert: And so, I mean I think that the country just has a long way to go towards, you know, solving and addressing our past.
Joe: And so, sort of stretching your experience out, you know, traditional discussion around race and obviously because of the history you just mentioned with slavery, is the black and white dynamic, but obviously I think the stats are that whites are the minority and some number of years, 10, 15, or 20 years. And so, we have a large Latino community and there’s a lot of rhetoric around that right now. So, how has that past racism transferred itself onto the relationships between whites and Latinos and blacks and Latinos? How do you see that all mixing out?
Gilbert: I think there’s like a lot better sociologists and people who probably would be able to answer that question more effectively than I would. But I would just say, when I look at it seems to be like this sort of a last grasp of white supremacy or white dominance. And so, obviously, this nation is getting younger, this nation is getting more diverse, and that’s not going to stop. And so, you do see these last minute, or these last-ditch efforts I think to protect the populous as we know it. We want to make America great again. Well, when was it great? I mean, I’m not saying that America was not a great country, it is a great country, but when was it at its greatest? If you ask that question sometimes people don’t really have an answer to it because a lot of times their answer is oh, you mean back in Jim Crow days? Back before the civil rights? Like what was the time when America was great? And so, try to define those things that you agree with about the greatness that you want to return to. I mean, I think make America great again when there wasn’t mass shootings every day, let’s go back to those days. I mean, you could play that both ways.
Gilbert: But I just think that the nation is changing, it’s getting younger, I think changes come with young people that even in the forties when I was doing a lot of research I was amazed by what I was finding. There was one moment when the University of Texas law school was trying to keep out African Americans. And Thurgood Marshall actually went down to Texas and argued this case. And what was really interesting and surprising and inspiring to me was that all of the white students at the University of Texas law school decided that they were going to show up in that court room and sit with the African American section. And they actually booed their dean who was saying whites needed to be kept separate and couldn’t allow blacks to come in. And they started booing their dean and they all came out and they joined the NAACP in protest. And it was at that moment that the chancellors and the school president couldn’t hold off the momentum. And at that point they had to integrate the school. And I just think that change came about from young people and I think you see similar things like with gun violence and the Parkland movement; you’re seeing young people really take the reins of this going into the ’60s itself. A lot of older African Americans were helping with that as well as Caucasians. But for the most part it was a young person’s movement. So, I think that’s just, you know, the way the world works. The younger people have more progressive ideas and they’re more inclusive.
Joe: I would like to spend at least a few minutes because I know some of our listeners will be interested in you as the writer talking about the craft a little bit. You mentioned earlier five years to put a book out, what’s that process like? Can you walk us through what that five years looks and feels like?
Gilbert: Oh yeah, that’s a great question. I mean, the funny thing is if you’re a non-fiction writer nobody ever asks you process question like all my novelist friends get asked these kinds of questions, like what side of the paper do you write on? Like they just care about me the story that I’m writing about. So, I actually like process questions. I would say that a book, I’ll say in general because I’ve done three of them now like this and they all took about five, a little more than five years. I write fairly fast and so I write these stories in one year, the other four was all research. And I think that’s one of the benefits and advantages that I have to maybe someone who is a journalist who is working on long form, they might only have a month to do a story, maybe a few months if they’re lucky. But nowadays with newspapers there’s not a lot of newspapers that can invest in one journalist going out and working for a story for years, it’s just not a model that works. So, as an author I’m sort of giving a little bit of latitude and I think that time and that patience really works well for me. So, what I generally do is I move down to the places I’m covering and I stay for long amounts of time and I build relationships. And, you know, sometimes it’s not just one interview with somebody, it’s like 20 interviews.
And over time memories begin to come back and I explore themes and then I’m able to double check all their things and they’re saying. So, I just have a longer deadline and I’m able to really just dive deeper and wait. You know, sometimes you file a freedom of information act request, you might not get the files for two and a half, three years. And so, you have to have that kind of deadline in order to be able to get those files because everything has to be redacted, most of the time, has to be redacted and gone over so there’s not personal details. And, you know, you go into a queue and it takes years to get to your stuff. And so, I have to wait that out, but you know, I really like that. I feel like in non-fiction you can do a lot of world-building. And so, I like to learn everything I can about the citrus industry. I like to learn about local government, I like to go through high school yearbooks and see the names of people and see where they show up. Oh, this person who is a suspect in that murder actually played on the football team with the other guy so that now I know that they know each other. It’s just like putting those clues together and that world is just really interesting to me. I never get tired of that and the writing is awful, I don’t really love writing, but the research and detective work is just so much fun.
Joe: How do you express that; do you have a room where it’s all over the walls? Do you keep it all digital?
Gilbert: I’m kind of an old school so I like to have paper printed out and notes and stickies on margins. I have a pretty organized set of files, but I like to have it like spread out on a bed or on a desk so that I can get stuff really quickly. I don’t like the digital stuff, just flip it around and just kind of gives me a headache.
Joe: So, you don’t have the wall with strings attached and the people and the central characters like they do?
Gilbert: I have a wall, but I don’t have that- I got to think about that, but I have such a small office that I don’t really have a lot of room, but I do have walls with things. And you know there was one point I remember after I wrote Devil In The Grove I started one of these index card things with all these character stuff and I think I did like nine or 10 characters and I had it. And then five years later I was cleaning out my office and I found those index cards like under a coffee cup. I was like geez I really meant to put those on the wall and I never got around to it. So, a lot of it is sort of in my head or in lists of things to do.
Joe: So, obviously the quality of the information you get from your sources it can be directly proportional to your relationship with them?
Gilbert: Oh yeah.
Joe: So, how intentional were you about thinking about how to foster those relationships and build trust and that sort of thing?
Gilbert: It’s really interesting because the way that I got the idea for Beneath The Ruthless Sun I was doing a talk for Devil In The Grove and this old deputy came up to me and he basically said you got your book right, I was a deputy on McCall’s force and you got it right, but why don’t you write about this Jessie Daniels kid? That was the same kind of, you know, Lake County story and nobody ever writes about him. He goes, I think it will be hard for you because he said that there’s powerful people involved in this story and nobody will talk to you about it. And so, that led me down a lot of roads where I was asking people and they were like why are you asking about that? They didn’t want to talk about it because they knew the families were still there. Ultimately, I think it was the patience that paid off and in the end I think I had everybody participating and cooperating with me including the victim’s family themselves. They turned over the diaries and the photographs and photo albums. And then the family all spoke to me, I’ll never forget that act of generosity. Imagine if some like New York guy came to your house and said we want to write a book about your mother’s worst moment in her life, how would you react to that? Like I don’t know how happy I’d be to see this person. And so, it took a lot of writing and just explaining myself and just being there and I ultimately presented a way that I wanted to portray that mother in an interesting way. I felt like she was morally conflicted with the conspiracy that was happening and she kind of acted partially in a heroic way. And when I explained that to the family they said well that’s how we saw her, and they acknowledged it. And so that went a long way and it was just a matter of just being patient and talking to people and basically getting them to trust that I wasn’t writing something sensational, I wasn’t going to exploit the story, I wanted it to be about something larger and more meaningful in America.
Joe: This jumps back a little bit, but I think that some of your other content you mentioned being nervous. That day that the man came up to you, the deputy, and mentioned you were back in Lake County and I think you’d mention being nervous about going back there.
Joe: Can you identify what made you the most nervous? Where you feel the greatest risk came from?
Gilbert: I think it was the whole way that day started. Now this was the very first talk I did for Devil In The Grove. And I hadn’t done a lot of book talks in my life at that point. I don’t think it was the first, but it may have been close to the first. And for some reason I decided to start this whole book tour basically in Groveland, in the heart of it. And it didn’t really occur to me like I’m going into the middle of this where a lot of the families still remain. And I remember walking to the community center in Groveland thinking, you know, I really don’t mind if nobody shows up to this thing, I don’t know what I’m walking into. And as I got there I saw a lot of people in the parking lot, full house clearly, cars everywhere and now I started to get really nervous. And this woman came running out towards me before I got to the building and she said, “Mr. King, Mr. King, before you come in, I think it’s fair to tell you that we’ve had two death threats called in on your appearance tonight.” And I was like thinking to myself what have I done? Like that I was terrified. So, she said, “You have nothing to worry about though, we called the Lake County Sheriff’s Department.”
Joe: Oh, you’re in good hands.
Gilbert: I’m like did you read the book? And a deputy showed up, he was standing behind me, which didn’t really make me feel less nervous, but then when the retired deputy came up to me he kind of stuck his business card right in my face and all I could really see was sheriff of Lake County on that card and I’m like, “Oh no, who is this guy?” And then as he started talking I realized that he was- Actually, I did mention him in the book. He was a deputy who turned in his fellow deputies for falsifying evidence. So, he was like the black sheep of the Lake County’s Sheriff Department. Hated McCall, hated a lot of the other deputies, but he was a great source for me because, you know, I knew that Willis McCall and his staff just destroyed all their records, they did not want that ever existing. But now I had this deputy who was inside and he said to me, he was talking about the Jessie Daniels case he said you should write about it, we framed that kid, we framed him for a rape he didn’t commit. And he went on to tell me exactly how they did it. So now I had this inside like basically whistleblower who was just so valuable, but you know, it was terrifying going into that environment.
Joe: And has any of that- You’ve written three books now all around the same subject, obviously there’s still the KKK, there’s white supremist out there, have you gotten any real flak from that?
Gilbert: Not really, you know, I’m really surprised. I just think, you know, every once and awhile something happens like that, like getting a threat called in, I’m not really sure that was a real threat, I think it was just kind of a harassing thing to do. You know, I just feel sometimes that stories I’m writing about, I’m a white guy 70 years later, it’s a different environment. It made me think about, you know, the young African American lawyers that were trying to get involved and seeking justice back in Jim Crow South and they had their lives on the line. And I never feel that my life is on the line, I just- I don’t know, I just choose to not acknowledge that. You know, I try to be safe, every once and awhile I go to a venue and they’ll have a deputy there for whatever reason, but I’ve never felt anything. I’ve never been confronted or anything like that, people generally talk. I think if people had read my books they also recognize that there’s sort of this sympathy and understanding. I’m not just trying to make this black versus white, good versus evil, I think the gray lines are much more interesting and what exist in the shadows of these stories. You know, some people are not great people, but they end up doing a really interesting thing. And beneficial to I think American values. And then some people are supposed to be the beacons of society and most of what they do is really great, but there’s a couple of bad things they do. And I find that more interesting as that’s much more human.
Joe: Interesting, wonderful. I’ve enjoyed the conversation. I’m going to give you a fun one, a couple of fun ones, to end it. So, you go back 30 years, you’re not allowed to write about civil rights, what are you writing about?
Gilbert: Oh boy, that’s a great question. You know, I have always been really interested in sports. You know, and I’ve looked really hard. I’ve only recently stopped looking, but I’ve looked so many times for a great sports story that was a little larger than sports itself. You know, maybe someone who had a great career, but they were doing something else. I have a friend, Oren Jacoby who did a great documentary film about this champion Tour de France cyclist, but in-between Tour de France he was like running for the resistance against Germany. And because he was such a famous biker he was able to take documents and put them in the pipes of his bicycles. And for years and years he was able to smuggle documents back and forth for the resistance. So, I’ve always looked for some great story like that or something that’s just a larger than sports because, I don’t know, the personalities are really large and who knows, maybe if I found something that hasn’t been explored I would do something like that.
Joe: And, you know, your books beg to be made into movies, any action on that front?
Gilbert: Well, Amazon we had a long run with Devil In The Grove. It started out with Lion’s Gate which was very exciting and this young woman Ally Sherman was really a great producer. And I think she was a lawyer, and she studied law with one of Thurgood Marshall’s clerks. So, she was very much interested in Thurgood’s legacy. And so, she picked it up, she was the head of Lion’s Gate and picked it up. But then she had an untimely passing about two years ago and the movie kind of fell over to Amazon. And you know, when they start changing personnel, people come and go, it’s sort of falling off that. So, it’s back out the and we’re moving it around to other people to see who’s interesting. But I think there’s a very strong possibility that this thing will get off the ground again, it’s always a very timely story. And I think people really don’t understand Thurgood Marshall’s contribution, I think we all know Martin Luther King. Oh, sometimes I go around speaking has ever heard Thurgood Marshall speak? And it’s only a few hands because we don’t have that newsreel footage of him, but if you do hear him and listen to him you see how dynamic and funny he was; he was larger than life. And so, I think, you know, I’m really hopeful that a character like that would really inspire cinema.
Joe: We finish each show with a shout out, someone who is doing good work that maybe flies under the radar a little bit, anybody in mind that you want to give a little love to?
Gilbert: I don’t know if he flies under the radar, but there was a few people, but one of the ones I would mention is Brian Stevenson who is the head of the Equal Justice Initiative. I think Brian is one of those guys who, you know, he’s a writer like me, he talks the talk, but he’s also an attorney who has argued before the Supreme Court many times. His work with the equal justice initiative and freeing innocent people from jail he really walks the walk. And he’s the greatest public speaker I’ve ever seen. I’m totally enraptured every time I watch him speak and I just think he inspires the greatness of people and I’ll never be like him, but I aspire to have my work touch people the way his work touches mine. I’m just a great admirer, so Brian Stevenson would be the man I would recommend.
Joe: Wonderful, I appreciate your time.
Gilbert: Thanks Joe, pleasure.
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About the host
Joe Hamilton is publisher of the St. Pete Catalyst, co-founder of The St. Petersburg Group, a partner at SeedFunders, fund director at the Catalyst Fund and host of St. Pete X.