[Marxism] Profile of Pulitzer Prize nonfiction author of book on Jim Crow injustice
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Thu Apr 25 08:00:03 MDT 2013
NY Times April 24, 2013
Making a Name by Uncovering a Lost Case
By WILLIAM GRIMES
The news, when it came, was short and sweet. Standing on a Florida golf
course last week, Gilbert King looked at his phone and saw a two-word
text message from an old friend: “Dude. Pulitzer.”
Mr. King, much to his surprise, had just been declared the winner in the
general nonfiction category for “Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall,
the Groveland Boys and the Dawn of a New America.” The book, about four
black men falsely accused of raping Norma Lee Padgett, a 17-year-old
white woman in Groveland, Fla., in 1949, unearthed a largely forgotten
chapter in the long history of racial injustice in the United States,
and explored, in painstaking detail, the tactics used by Thurgood
Marshall, the future Supreme Court justice, to chip away at the
foundations of Jim Crow law.
Though Mr. King did not know it, his publisher, Harper Collins, had
nominated the book, which beat out Katherine Boo’s lavishly praised
“Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai
Undercity,” winner of the National Book Award in the same category in
November. The other finalist was David George Haskell’s “The Forest
Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature,” a sharp-focus examination of a square
meter of old-growth forest in Tennessee.
“I’m sure people who write the big, critically acclaimed books know if
they’re in the running,” Mr. Gilbert said during an interview in his
small walk-up apartment on the Upper East Side, a few blocks from Gracie
Mansion. “But I’d just gotten a notice from my publisher that the book
had been remaindered.”
Mr. King, an amateur historian, stumbled on the Groveland case while
writing his first book, “The Execution of Willie Francis,” another tale
of racial injustice. Groveland “wasn’t really covered in a lot of the
Marshall biographies, which tend to treat his criminal cases as
footnotes,” he said. “His clerks knew all about it, though, because he
always talked about it when he recalled the old days.”
There was a lot to recall, most of it horrific. One of the accused men
never made it to a courtroom. He was hunted down and shot to death by a
hastily organized posse. Two others were shot by the local sheriff,
Willis McCall, while being transported from state prison to the local
jail for a hearing after their convictions were overturned by the
Supreme Court. One died on the side of the road. The other survived.
Mr. King was able to reconstruct events, virtually day by day, after
getting his hands on two troves of data. He gained access to the
unedited files of the F.B.I., which sent investigators to Groveland to
conduct interviews with local officials and police. He also convinced
the N.A.A.C.P. to let him see the tightly controlled files of its Legal
Defense and Educational Fund. The fund’s directors, citing concerns
about lawyer-client confidentiality, has been loath to grant access to
the material even to eminent civil rights historians like Taylor Branch.
“I don’t think anyone had seen those files for 20 years,” Mr. King said.
”But I just kept at it. I said, ‘My focus is very narrow. I just want to
look at this one case.’ ”
Mr. King was fortunate in his protagonists. Marshall, already assuming
larger-than-life dimensions, was determined to see justice done but
focused on cases that let him set legal precedents to dismantle
segregation and Jim Crow. The public-relations value of the Groveland
case was not lost on him, either.
Every good drama needs a villain. The Groveland case had a memorable one
in McCall, a ruthless, brutal man who conducted a one-man reign of
terror in Lake County. “He made Bull Connor look like Barney Fife,” Mr.
King said, referring to the notorious commissioner of public safety in
Birmingham, Ala., during the civil rights era. “Connor used dogs and
fire hoses. McCall actually killed people.”
Mr. King traveled a winding professional road on the way to his
Pulitzer. A native of Schenectady, N.Y., he attended the University of
South Florida with the thought that he might make a career playing
second base. That dream died when he got a look at some of the Dominican
players the school had recruited.
After coming up two math credits short of a degree in English, he moved
to New York and patched together a living doing freelance editing and
ghostwriting. One project was a coffee-table book dedicated to antique
While working for a publisher of medical magazines, he was asked to fill
in and supervise a photo shoot in Puerto Rico. The work appealed to him.
He learned to handle a camera, got into fashion photography, and picked
up lots of jobs from foreign magazines that needed a man on the spot in
His two books enjoyed only modest sales, and he is undecided what the
next project might be. When the Pulitzer news came, “I was sort of lying
low,” he said. Three times a month he files offbeat historical stories
for Past Imperfect, a blog on Smithsonian magazine’s Web site. His
topics have included the great Australian prison break of 1876 and, to
coincide with the Masters tournament, the story of Craig Wood, the
unluckiest golfer of all time.
It was while editing a crime encyclopedia that he found the subject of
his first book. Willie Francis, a teenager convicted of murdering a
white pharmacist in St. Martinville, La., in 1944 and sentenced to die
in the electric chair. Because of a malfunction, Francis survived
electrocution; a local lawyer, arguing that a second electrocution would
be cruel and unusual punishment, took his case all the way to the
Mr. King, a fan of Walter Mosley’s historical crime novels, took full
advantage of the setting, in the heart of Acadiana, to spin an
atmospheric yarn around the facts. “It became a strange Cajun murder
mystery,” he said.
It ended badly. In 1947, weary of the legal battles being fought on his
behalf, Willie Francis took his seat once again in the chair nicknamed
Gruesome Gertie. There were no glitches the second time around.
In the case of the Groveland Four, Mr. King was able to track down some
participants; the case still burns in local memory. When he returned to
Groveland for a reading, the local librarian informed him that two
threats had been phoned in. “Don’t worry,” she said, “we called the
sheriff’s office.” Mr. King savored the moment.
One interview subject he saved for last: Norma Lee Padgett herself, who
lived in a trailer at the end of a dirt road in rural Georgia. A
relative answered the door of a second trailer on the property and acted
as a go-between. The message he brought back to Mr. King was, “Let
sleeping dogs lie.”
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