STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The author Gilbert King did not expect to go back to Lake County, Fla. That's where he went to research his 2012 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "Devil In The Grove," and where he first wrote about a violently racist sheriff from the Jim Crow era who frames four black men for the rape of a white woman.
GILBERT KING: I was doing a talk for "Devil In The Grove," and I had an old deputy come up to me who said that he used to work for Sheriff Willis McCall. And he said to me, there's more to this story. And he started to tell me the story of Jesse Daniels, and it was just too good to pass up.
INSKEEP: Jesse is the surprising victim of that same sheriff's racist hold on Lake County. His story unfolds in King's latest work of nonfiction, called "Beneath A Ruthless Sun." In it, a prominent socialite says a black man raped her. But, as Gilbert King told our co-host Noel King, Jesse, a white, mentally impaired teen, takes the fall for the crime.
G. KING: Jesse only made it as far as fifth grade. He was a 16-year-old fifth-grader. And the school basically said he's not educable. So they made him drop out of school. And he worked in the citrus groves just doing manual labor, and lived in this little tiny town with his mother and father, Okahumpka, Fla. He was basically just trying to go through life as a mentally disabled teenager. And, obviously, prospects were not very good for him.
NOEL KING, BYLINE: Was Jesse Daniels the kind of person who would have committed a crime like this, broken into a woman's house in the middle of the night and raped her?
G. KING: No. Absolutely not. And, fortunately, I had the benefit of meeting him. He's still alive. He's just about as gentle and as docile as they come. And so everybody who knew him knew that he was just not capable of something like this.
N. KING: Tell us about the time period that we're talking about.
G. KING: Right. Well, this is kind of interesting because in the 1950s after Brown v. Board, the South perceived itself as under attack by the U.S. Supreme Court.
N. KING: Because it was being ordered to desegregate.
G. KING: Absolutely. So this was going to be mixing of the races. And in the immediate aftermath, you saw a rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan. You saw these White Citizen Councils form. These met openly. They were pursuing the agenda of the Klan, but they had the demeanor of the Rotary Club. And so there were very powerful people in the towns who were opposed to the mixing of the races.
N. KING: Well, they were part of this power structure that was headed, in some ways, by Sheriff Willis McCall. He was an unapologetic racist, and he manufactured the case against Jesse. Why was Sheriff McCall so determined to frame a white man for a crime that the victim said had been committed by a black man? That seems to go against everything that we would think about that time period in Florida.
G. KING: And that's really the million-dollar question in this entire book. The reporter in this case, Mabel Norris Reese, she knows Jesse is framed. So she understands the how of it, and she spends the entire time trying to solve the why. To really understand why, you have to look at Willis McCall's role. His purpose in Lake County was to maintain white supremacy and sort of prevent the organization of labor in the citrus groves. So criminal justice and law enforcement were his means of racial control. There was sort of this implication - and Mabel was onto it very early. She just couldn't prove it at the time - but maybe it would have been better for a society woman to have been raped by a white person rather than a black person.
N. KING: Better why?
G. KING: Better - well, I mean, one of those citrus growers at the time told me Blanche would have been a pariah if word had gotten out. The idea that she had been violated by an African-American was just something that could not be overcome in that society. And so the question is, was there this conspiracy to sort of eliminate the African-American suspects and focus on a disposable white person, which is what Jesse Daniels was. He was uneducated. He was mentally disabled. And the rationale was basically would it be OK to just send away a kid like this to a mental institute for the rest of his life?
N. KING: And Jesse Daniels, as you say, didn't go to prison. He wasn't convicted, even.
G. KING: Right. It looks like Blanche Knowles, who, you know, she was the one who first reported that she had been raped by an African-American, it doesn't look like she wants to perjure herself by naming Jesse Daniels. And so what the powers that be sort of do is say, well, I guess we can't have a trial - let's just throw him in a mental institute.
N. KING: The asylum in Chattahoochee, Fla., was a place of cruel behavior toward the inmates. It was a place with appalling conditions. In some ways, it sounds even worse than a prison.
G. KING: Well, in fact, a lot of people thought you would be better off in a state prison than in a mental institute because there were lobotomies, electric shock therapy, drugging patients constantly and just putting them in a stupor. The mental institutions like Chattahoochee were basically used as a weapon in law enforcement. All you needed was a judge's signature to commit someone. And that was a way to dispose of a lot of thorny criminal cases at the time.
N. KING: Yeah, disposable people, as you call them. I'm going to take you back to a name you have mentioned already. There was a woman, Mabel Norris Reese. She was a journalist who fought for Jesse's release, who believed that he was innocent. She was dogged about this.
G. KING: Absolutely. When she started writing about Brown v. Board and how there should be a gradual desegregation, she faced it all. Her dog was poisoned. Her house was bombed. She had crosses put in her lawn. She was ultimately driven out of the county by the Klan. But she stayed on this case, and she struck up this friendship with Jesse's mother. And sort of the two of them, two women who just refused to back down - and Pearl Daniels would write letters to J. Edgar Hoover and just annoy him constantly, saying, you've got to open up this case. And eventually, I think, she was such a nuisance that J. Edgar Hoover said, fine. Open up a civil rights investigation. And that was the thing that really got this case some daylight.
N. KING: We have a victim in this book who is white. We have a young man who takes the fall for the crime who is white. Everyone in law enforcement is white. Is this still a story about racism and race in America?
G. KING: Absolutely. I mean, it's just a little bit different way of looking at it. But, you know, in order to support the foundation of white supremacy, whites were expected to perjure themselves for the cause. If you were a lawyer, a white lawyer, taking a civil rights case, you were shunned. The entire system was debasing. Thurgood Marshall once said, no one benefits from racism. And that quote was really never more apparent to me than when I was working on this book.
N. KING: Does the Lake County of 1957, when this terror was underway, does that still exist?
G. KING: I think it's definitely still there in pockets. I mean, every once in a while, someone will send me a link of, you know, a Lake County deputy who's been kicked out of the force because they found out he was still in the Klan.
N. KING: Wow.
G. KING: So I do think there's still pockets of that, but Lake County as a whole has changed demographically quite a bit. It's just become more of a suburb of Orlando. So you couldn't define the whole county as that way, but there are still pockets of it that it exists.
N. KING: Gilbert King is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Devil In The Grove." His new book is "Beneath A Ruthless Sun." Gilbert, thank you so much for joining us.
G. KING: Thank you so much for having me.
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