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How Writing Can Be A Tool For Social Justice: An Interview With Author Gilbert King

Aug 26, 2019

Author Gilbert King won a Pulitzer Prize for his 2013 book, "Devil In The Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys and the Dawn of a New America." His latest book, "Beneath A Ruthless Sun," also focuses on a true story of racial injustice in Florida in the 1950s.

The New York-based author is in St. Petersburg to talk about how writers can help awaken social justice. WUSF's Kerry Sheridan spoke with him about why these stories are important to tell.


"We have a problem with race in this country we've never been able to get over because we have never really tried to reconcile our past. And when I look at some of the problems we are facing today, they are age-old problems of race and inequality that we have just sort of brushed under the carpet and every few years, it resurfaces because we have never dealt with it. So it is about trying to find a better understanding of what this country went through in order to address criminal justice problems, social justice issues in America, so it is really just falling on writers and lawyers to do this kind of storytelling through recognizing the past."

q: And you have a recurring character in this book, "Beneath A Ruthless Sun," which you also had in "Devil In The Grove." Tell me about this sheriff.

"Sheriff Willis McCall, in 'Devil In The Grove,' he was just about the face of evil. He was killing people. He was doing everything a powerful sheriff would do if their power was unchecked. And he was basically unchecked. Probably one of the most powerful sheriffs in the country. And he got away with everything. And his job was basically to enforce white supremacy and just keep labor in line in the citrus groves and so that African American pickers weren't making a lot of money. That was just how this power structure worked. He killed people in 'Devil In The Grove.' He was a horrible character. When it came time to write the next book which was 10 years later in Lake County, I didn't really want to go back into his life at all. I said maybe he would be just like a side figure because I didn't really want to involve him and dive into his character. But as I was doing the research, I found out he was involved in everything. So he played a major role in that. So I really have written two books about this sheriff in Lake County and I promise you it is the last one."

q: In "Beneath A Ruthless Sun," there is a part where someone says, "This has to be a book."

"That was ironic because here I am working on this book and I found this scene where there was something you couldn't imagine happening in a hearing. It involved the sheriff and his deputies tricking the stenographer with a confession. And basically switching the suspects and having the real criminal just give a different name and sign a different name and that was the way they were going to let him go, in order to frame someone else. So when the special master and the legislator found out about this, and saw what was happening, he called a recess and went back into his chambers with the legislators and said, 'Somebody has to write a book.' And I remember thinking, 'Oh, that is what I am doing right now. It just took 50 years.' It was that kind of story. You just couldn't believe it."

q: I think you bring a photographer's eye to a lot of the writing you do because you recreate these scenes so well.

"I think it comes down to being obsessed with the subjects. So when I find out that one of the main characters lived in this town, I want to know everything about that town at that particular time. In this case, it was 1957. It starts by looking at old aerial photographs. Now I know what it looked like. It was kind of barren. Where did children hang out at the time? They were fishing in these fishing holes. Who lived nearby? When you start getting obsessed with these details. Oh, that other character is right across the street. So what is that like? Now I am learning about all these characters lives, and describing the area they live in.

"Citrus was booming. Florida was modernizing with the space program. But my part of central Florida stayed away from that. They didn't want that modernization. They liked living in the past in a way. It was all about rural agriculture. The difference between the space coast over by Cocoa Beach and then this town that seemed lost in history, it seemed kind of timeless."

q: As you mentioned, you have to be obsessed with a book to bring it to the level, which you have. What are you working on now?

"I am working on a new crime story that is set in Polk County and it is much later, it is in the '80s. I am used to writing where everybody is dead. So all I have is documents and memories of maybe some other people who knew them. But in this particular case everyone is alive. It is almost like bringing my journalism side back to life. I'm used to just going into archives and manuscript divisions and learning about things there. And now it is just about pounding the pavement and tracking down people who were involved in this criminal trial back in the '80s and most people have stuck around that area and so it has been really enlightening. It is the same kind of similar, criminal injustice case that I have been working on but it is more immediate because there is an innocent person who is sitting in jail right now waiting for his case to be resolved in a form that brings some kind of justice. And it is very frustrating to see the obstacles in his way of getting freedom.

q: Is it another story of racial injustice?

"It doesn't have race but it has most of the same sort of power structure and people who don't have much money and how they become disposable people. If you are poor and living in central Florida at the time, if you are poor and unable to defend yourself, the state can be very powerful. It is what happens when things spiral out of your control and you just don't have the money or resources to defend yourself. That is really what this case is about."

q: What are some of the parallels that you see in the stories you've written about the 1950s that exist today?

"One of the things I like to remind people is that the criminal justice system is barely recognizable. When I look back at the '40s and '50s, some of the things you see in a courtroom you can't imagine. The right to remain silent? That didn't exist forever. When you see cases in the '30s and '40s you'll see attorneys saying he won't even take the stand,that is a guilty conscience for you right there. You see these things in the courtroom and you're like, what the hell is going on here? All sorts of prosecutorial misconduct. You really wouldn't recognize the criminal justice system. It is so much different and so much better today. With that said, there are still the same kind of issues that bubble up. Like mass incarceration, that was in its infancy in the 40s and 50s. Now it has exploded. We still have problems with police brutality and how a jury reacts to that. How a district attorney reacts to that.  We see it in New York. It is not just a southern thing. It is all across the country. So these problems still exist. They are just in a different form. It is in a much more subtle form. I think the battle is even tougher today. Back in the 40s and 50s you could actually say that's wrong. Right and wrong were very clear. Nowadays, it is not so obvious. Things are much more subtle. So I think it presents a lot more difficulties in trying to bring about change."

Gilbert King is the author of "Beneath A Ruthless Sun" and "Devil In The Grove."
Credit Daylina Miller / WUSF

q: In "Beneath A Ruthless Sun," you write about Sheriff McCall coming to court with a pistol in his pocket. And the jury admitting, basically, "We thought he was guilty, but we have got to live here."

"Right. This was a case where the sheriff was indicted, and brought up on murder charges. He kicked to death a black, mentally disabled prisoner in his jail cell. And there were witnesses to it. So they indicted him, suspended him from office, moved him to another county and tried him. But he was acquitted within like an hour. The prosecutors thought the case was open and shut. There were witnesses. About an hour of deliberations he was acquitted. The FDLE went in and interviewed all the jurors to find out what went wrong here. They found out most of the people on the jury thought he was guilty but they said we got to live here. And you are talking about the man who was basically the head of the Ku Klux Klan in this part of central Florida. In this trial, one of the witnesses disappeared. Another had his head blown off outside a bar in Lake County.  These were the consequences that were very real. If you are going to be on a jury and you are going convict Willis McCall, you had to think really hard about it. This was in the early 70s in central Florida. Not some distant past."

q: Why are these your stories to tell? What is it that really resonates with you? 

"I think it is because most of the people I am writing about don't have the platform to tell their stories. So a lot of these stories I think will be lost in history unless somebody comes along and takes an interest in the story. At first I had some resistance, like why do you want to drag that back up again? That is a painful part of our family's past. Why do you want to bring that up? It is a difficult conversation. I explain this is a really important story that takes place in America that a lot of people are not familiar with. And so once you start getting them to trust you a little bit and getting them to recognize that you are not trying to exploit a crime you are trying to expose some inequalities in the criminal justice system. Then I get all the encouragement in the world. It is like what do you need? Please tell this story. It is interesting, the first instinct is kind of like a World War II vet. They don't want to ever talk about what they have seen. But if you start them down a road, then they feel comfortable they will talk. They want to talk actually. But it takes a little bit of prodding to get there.

"People recognize that I have a platform to shine a light on certain inequalities whether they be racial or (other) injustices, and to use that platform for a greater good. I think that is really why I write. I want people to have a better understanding of why things happened and maybe what can we do differently to correct these past injustices."

q: You are going to be talking in St. Petersburg this week about awakening social justice through story telling. Are you hoping to inspire a new generation of writers?

"I get people who are writers who say these are the kind of stories I want to tell. I want to investigate these. My message is there is no barrier to entry. As a writer you have a blank piece of paper in front of you and you control your destiny. You can talk about well, I don't have an agent. I don't know enough people. Everyone kind of went through that stuff. It is just this long fight to get published and to get noticed. I like to say that there is sort of a level playing field. I am a perfect example. I wasn't coming from the great institutions of the northeast with a legal degree and moving into civil rights. I was basically a college dropout but I found the thing I was passionate about. So that blank page really symbolized like, I can just level the playing field by doing the work and telling the  story in a way that will make people -- move them in some way. So I try to inspire writers that way, I say anybody can do this. You can do this. You have just got to find the right story for you to tell."

q: What is your advice for young people getting their start now?

"To me, the most powerful thing is to follow your interest and just fall in love with what you are writing about. I have always loved crime stories and I was always a big reader of crime. These stories always meant something to me. As I got older I started to recognize that my interests were expanding. I was interested in history, race, law. What it forced me into doing was still pursuing these crime stories which I loved, but sort of looking at the context of why these stories could happen, what was happening politically in the country, or in Florida if I'm doing it down here, what was happening legally, in terms of race, civil rights, so these crime stories just became larger stories. It is a way at looking at America at a certain time in history."

q: What is your connection to Florida?

"I actually attended the University of South Florida back in 1981. So I was here from 1981 to 1984. Sadly I didn’t quite do enough to graduate. I was two math credits short. I just moved back to New York and never actually got that bachelor’s degree. So that is my connection. But I am proud to say I got an honorary doctorate."

q: And that was after you won the Pulitzer for "Devil In The Grove," right?

"Yes, all of a sudden there was renewed interest and I would be invited to speak down here in Florida. I was doing a talk at the Hillsborough Bar. Somebody asked me what school did you graduate from? I said well, graduation is a tricky word around me. I explained was about two credits short. And somebody in the audience stood up and said “we’ll take care of that.” And I didn’t know who that was or what that meant. About a week later I got a call from (then-USF) president Judy Genshaft saying we are going to give you an honorary doctorate. So I came back down, I gave a commencement talk in the Sun Dome and I’ve got my doctorate now."

q: Well you had an interesting start. You've always been interested in journalism but you didn't get into it right away. Why not?

"I came down here, I was expecting to play baseball I thought that was going to be my career. But when I got here, the USF team was so good. I think they were the number one team in the country when I was here. They were so far beyond what I was ready to play so it was time for Plan B. I started spending a lot of time in the library, and reading a lot. It was actually a really great period of growth for me. And I decided I was really interested in writing and I tried to be into journalism and in order to get in to journalism at the time, you had to be able to type 40 words per minute.They let me take the test twice and I got 39 words per minute, and 38 words per minute. And it wasn't quite there. They said sorry, you are just going to have to increase your typing speed. So at that point I as like well, I guess I can't be in journalism. I'll go over to the English department. And that's what I did. It all worked out fine. I was still writing for The Oracle when I was here I just couldn't pass the typing test."

Gilbert King will be speaking at USF St. Petersburg tomorrow as part of the Open Partnership Education Network, which is a media partner of WUSF.