Gilbert King was our keynote speaker for our annual Steppin’ Out Gala a few weeks ago, and a Pulitzer Prize winning author. His books are a must-read, true stories of the harsh realities faced in the American South, rooted in deep-seated racism and discrimination.
In King’s most recent novel, Beneath a Ruthless Sun: A True Story of Violence, Race, and Justice Lost and Found, the scene is 1957 in Okahumpka, Florida. A cold front is blowing its way through central Florida, causing quite a detriment to the citrus crop. Blanche Knowles, the wife of a well-to-do citrus man, claims she was raped in her own home during the freeze while her husband was out of town. Blanche immediately reports to the known-racist sheriff of the town, Willis McCall, that a “husky Negro” was the perpetrator.
Although set 10 years after King’s book The Devil in the Grove, King highlights that Florida is still deeply imbedded in racism and bigotry. McCall tells his boys to gather a group of potential black suspects. Officers raided the local neighborhood North Quarters, an area of run-down homes and shacks where the black town members tended to reside. Much to the surprise of the community, within a few days McCall ends up labeling Jesse Daniels as a suspect and sending him to the insane asylum in Chattahoochee. Daniels is a white nineteen-year-old boy who was mentally disabled and never finished high school. He was frequently seen riding his bike around town. For 14 years, Daniels resided in the mental hospital for a crime he did not commit.
King’s heroine of his story is presented in the form of Mabel Norris Reese, a local journalist who is forever struck by the oddities of this particular case. Reese was a keen and daring reporter of a weekly newspaper, and dedicated many years to asking the questions that nobody else seemed inclined to ask. She chased this story for years, and was slowly able to uncover bit by bit the hidden truths behind the crime.
Beneath a Ruthless Sun delves deeply into issues plaguing the South—involving racism, civil rights, legal issues, and much more. We are still dealing with these issues today, tainting institutions such as our criminal justice system.