Gilbert King talks about the impact of the supreme court judge and his legacy in his book “Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America.”
King’s book centers around four Florida men who were accused of raping a white farm girl in 1949. At the time, Marshall was known as Mr. Civil Rights. He had been successful with bringing civil rights cases to the attention of the courts, but that wasn’t all he focused on.
“People were surprised to see him taking these criminal death penalty cases in the south which was extremely dangerous,” King says. “He was sort of indisposable to the Civil Rights Movement. Even his own colleagues were asking him why he taking these cases.”
Marshall was known for saying that the death penalty cases mattered because those cases save lives. He was the last defense for many falsely accused men, King says.
There was a sheriff in Florida who would abduct the men who got off their death penalty charges and try killing them in the forest. He was only successful in killing one and non-fatally shooting another. King says you would look at this sheriff and know he was a bad apple, but he had the support of the government.
“I would argue that Thurgood Marshall, his impact and his legacy, is that he was able to come in and take these cases and really alter the judicial system,” King says. “I think that’s what his legacy is. The judicial system we live in today, although it’s not perfect, you wouldn’t recognize what was happening in the 40s and 50s until he came along and affected it with landmark decisions.”
It’s difficult to wrap the mind around how recent this really was, King says. There are still people from that era who are living today, like the woman who accused those four men in Florida.
King emphasizes the importance of the courts when it comes to changing how society works. He says before there was Martin Luther King, there were the lawyers and civil rights that were won through the court system.
“I think that’s something you’re seeing today where some of these issues we thought we had already solved like voting rights and segregation, they’re kind of coming back,” King says. “It’s taking lawyers once again for them to file cases to challenge these things.”
King is coming out with his third book, “Beneath a Ruthless Sun: A True Story of Violence, Race, and Justice Lost and Found” on April 24. It’s about how 19-year-old Jesse Daniels, a white and mentally impaired boy, was convicted of rape without trial and sent to the state hospital for the insane. For more information on King, visit gilbertking.com.
TED SIMONS: PULITZER-PRIZE WINNING AUTHOR GILBERT KING HAS WRITTEN A NUMBER OF BOOKS ON U.S. CIVIL RIGHTS, RACE RELATIONS AND THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM. KING IS IN PHOENIX TO SPEAK AT THE 25TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE "THURGOOD MARSHALL INN-OF-COURT," A NATIONWIDE ORGANIZATION THAT PROMOTES CIVILITY, ETHICAL BEHAVIOUR AND CONTINUING EDUCATION FOR YOUNG LAWYERS. KING WILL PRESENT A LECTURE ON HIS BOOK "DEVIL IN THE GROVE: THURGOOD MARSHALL, THE GROVELAND BOYS, AND THE DAWN OF A NEW AMERICA." WE WELCOME GILBERT KING TO "ARIZONA HORIZON."
GILBERT KING: GOOD TO HAVE YOU HERE.
THANK, TED. IT'S GREAT TO BE HERE.
TED SIMONS: BASICALLY, THE SPEECH WILL BE BASED ON THIS BOOK. THIS BOOK ALMOST HAS A LITTLE "TO KILL A MOCKING BIRD" FEEL TO IT?
GILBERT KING: IT DOES. IT'S A COMMON THING IN THE SOUTH, TO KILL A MOCKING BIRD THEME, FALSE ALLEGATIONS, LEADING TO LYNCHING AND BURNING DOWN OF NEIGHBORHOODS AND REACHES THE SUPREME COURT. IN THIS CASE, NO ONE HAS HEARD OF IT. PEOPLE HEARD OF THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS WHICH WAS 20 YEARS EARLIER. BUT THIS HAPPENED IN FLORIDA WHICH WAS SORT OF OFF THE RADAR. NO ONE THINKS OF FLORDIA AS THE SOUTH.
TED SIMONS: 1949 FOUR MEN IN FLORIDA ACCUSED OF RAPING A WHITE FARM GIRL. WHO IS THUR GOOD MARSHAL AT THAT TIME? WHO WAS THUR GOOD MARSHAL AT THE TIME?
GILBERT KING: AT THIS TIME WAS JUST CALLED MR. CIVIL RIGHTS. HE WAS TAKING THIS KATES TO THE SUPREME COURT. HE WAS SUCCESSFUL, VOTING RIGHTS CASES, HOUSING CASES. PEOPLE WERE SURPRISED TO SEE HIM TAKE THESE DEATH PENALTY CASES IN THE SOUTH WHICH WERE DANGEROUS. EVEN HIS OWN COLLEAGUES WERE SAYING, WHY ARE YOU TAKING THE CASES?
TED SIMONS: WHY DID HE SAY HE WAS TAKING THE CASES?
GILBERT KING: ONE OF THE MAIN THINGS, VOTING RIGHTS AFFECTS LIVES, HOUSING AND SCHOOL ISSUES ARE IMPORTANT BUT THESE CASES SAVE LIVES. HE WAS THE LAST DEFENSE FOR FALSELY ACCUSED MEN. THAT IS WHAT THE JURRY DECIDED.
TED SIMONS: THE SUPREME COURT OVERTURNED THE CONVICTION AND SENT IT BACK TO THE STATE?
GILBERT KING: THAT IS WHERE THE STORY REALLY GETS INTERESTING. THEY DID. THEY SENT IT BACK TO THE STATE. IF YOU LOOK BACK AT THE TRY, IT WAS A TRAVESTY OF JUSTICE. PEOPLE WERE COMMITTING PERJURY LEFT AND RIGHT. IT WAS JUST THE WORD YOUNG WHITE WOMAN SAYING THOSE MEN RAPED ME.
TED SIMONS: THEN WHAT HAPPENED?
GILBERT KING: THAT'S WHEN THE STORY GETS INTERESTING. THERE WAS A SHERIFF IN THE COUNTY THAT WAS VERY UPSET WITH THE DECISION. HE DECIDED TO DRIVE UP TO THE PRISON, PICK UP THE PRISONERS, TOOK A DETOUR ON A SIDE ROAD, TRIED TO EXECUTE THEM. KILLED ONE AND ONE WAS SHOT AND PRETENDED TO BE DEAD.
TED SIMONS: WHAT WAS THE REACTION OF THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT OVER THIS ACTIVITY?
GILBERT KING: THAT WAS PROBABLY THE MOST DISTURBING THING IN THE STORY. I THOUGHT YOU MIGHT SEE THE SHERIFF AS BEING A BAD APPLE. IN FACT, THE GOVERNMENT HAD HIS BACK. FROM THE U.S. ATTORNEY TO THE GOVERNOR, THEY COVERED FOR THIS. ALL OF THIS INFORMATION FROM THIS KILLING WAS COVERED UP AND FILED AWAY UNTIL I FILED A FREEDOM OF OF INFORMATION ACT 60 YEARS LATER.
TED SIMONS: AND THE REACTION IN GENERAL, FROM THE KU KLUX KLAN IN PARTICULAR?
GILBERT KING: THIS WAS PERFECT. THEY ORIGINALLY SHOWED UP AT THE JAIL AND WERE GOING TO LYNCH THE GROVELAND BOYS. THE SHERIFF MCAW WAS HEROIC. THERE IS NOT GOING TO BE A LYNCHING IN MY COUNTY. THEY'LL HAVE A FAIR TRIAL. WHEN THE SUPREME COURT OVER TURNED IT, HE FELT LIKE HE OWED THE CLAN, THE CONSTITUENTS THIS FAVOR. HE PROMISED THEY WERE GOING TO THE ELECTRIC CHAIR, SO HE TOOK IT INTO THEIR OWN HAND.
TED SIMONS: HOW DID AMERICA RESPOND TO THIS? AS YOU MENTIONED, MUCH OF AMERICA DIDN'T KNOW ABOUT THIS.
GILBERT KING: THEY DIDN'T. PEOPLE DIDN'T KNOW HOW TO LOOK AT FLORIDA. WE KNEW THINGS HAPPENED IN MISSISSIPPI, GEORGIA. FLORIDA WAS SEEN AS SOUTH OF THE SOUTH, LAND OF SUNSHINE. I LOOK BACK AND SEE ALL OF THESE ATROCITIES THAT EVERYONE SHOULD KNOW ABOUT THEM, CASES LIKE EMMET TILL, THIS PARTICULAR DAYS, AND NOBODY KNEW ABOUT THEM. PEOPLE DIDN'T KNOW WHAT TO EXPECT FROM FLORIDA.
TED SIMONS: YOUR BOOK TITLE IS DAWN OF A NEW AMERICA. WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?
GILBERT KING: IF I HAD TO ARGUE, THUR GOOD MARSHAL WAS ABLE TO CHANGE THE JUDICIAL SYSTEM. THE JUDICIAL SYSTEM WE LIVE IN TODAY. YOU WOULDN'T RECOGNIZE WHAT WAS HAPPENING IN THE '40S AND '50S UNTIL HE CAME ALONG.
TED SIMONS: HOW DID YOU FIND OUT ABOUT THIS CASE?
GILBERT KING: I WAS GOING THROUGH HIS PERSONAL FILES IN THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS. THERE WERE NOTICES FROM LAWYERS SAYING HELP US. WE ARE THREATENED EVERY DAY. THIS IS THE MOST DANGEROUS PLACE WE HAVE BEEN. I REMEMBER SEEING THIS AND I THOUGHT WHAT IS GOING ON? I LOOKED INTO IT AND FOUND IN THUR GOOD'S CASES WERE COVERING LAND MINE COURT CASES.
TED SIMONS: HOW DIFFICULT, IT SOUNDS LIKE IT WAS DIFFICULT TO DO RESEARCH ON IT. I'M SURE THERE ARE PEOPLE THAT WERE ALIVE BACK THEN.
GILBERT KING: THEY ARE. NORMA PAGEANT, THE WOMAN THAT ACCUSED THESE FOUR BLACK MEN IS STILL ALIVE. SHE REFUSED TO TALK TO ME. YOU CAN'T BELIEVE HOW THE JUSTICE SYSTEM WORKED BACK THEN. THIS IS NOT ANCIENT HISTORY THIS IS FAIRLY RECENT.
TED SIMONS: THE CRITICAL RESPONSE WAS INTERESTING TO SAY THE LEAST. WHAT ABOUT THE PUBLIC OPINION?
I DON'T KNOW THAT THE PUBLIC APPRECIATED ME DRAGGING THIS OUT. I HAVE NAME NAMED FROM THE F-B-I- REPORTS. THE COMMUNITY LEADERS MAY HAVE BEEN INVOLVED. IT'S A LITTLE TRICKY.
TED SIMONS: WHEN YOU SPEAK TO YOUNG LAWYERS BASING A SPEECH ON EVENTS LIKE THIS, CIVILITY, ETHICAL BEHAVIOR, THOSE THINGS ARE FLYING OUT THE WINDOW LEFT AND RIGHT IN A CASE LIKE THIS. WHAT DO YOU TELL FOLKS?
GILBERT KING: I THINK ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT THINGS TO REALIZE. BEFORE MARTIN LUTHER KING CAME ALONG, ALL OF THE GAINS WERE DONE IN COURT. THAT'S WHAT YOU ARE SEEING TODAY. SOME OF THE ISSUES WE THOUGHT WE SOLVED, VOTING RIGHT AND SEGREGATION, THEY ARE COMING BACK INTO IT. IT'S TAKING LAWYERS, ONCE AGAIN, FOR THEM TO FILE CASES AND CHALLENGE THESE THINGS.
TED SIMONS: YOUR FIRST BOOK WAS THE EXECUTION OF WILLIE FRANCIS AND NOW YOU HAVE A NEW BOOK COMING OUT THAT SOUNDS SIMILAR. TALK TO US ABOUT THAT.
GILBERT KING: IT IS SIMILAR, IT’S TEN YEARS LATER. SO I'M GOING BACK TO THE SAME FLORIDA COMMUNITY. IT'S IN THE AFTERMATH OF BROWN V. BOARD. I THINK WHAT IS INTERESTING, AFTER BROWN V. BOARD, YOU HAD A ROLL BACK IN CIVIL RIGHTS, AND ALL OF A SUDDEN THE KLAN EXPLODED, WHITE CITIZEN COUNCILS WERE POPPING UP. IT BECAME A VERY DANGEROUS PLACE AGAIN.
TED SIMONS: BENEATH THE RUTHLESS SUN.
GILBERT KING: IT THE STORY OF A YOUNG WOMAN RAPED ONE EVENING IN DECEMEBER OF 1957. SHE TELLS POLICE SHE WAS RAPED BY A HUSKY BLACKMAN. THE SHERIFF ARRESTS THE USUAL SUSPECTS AND THREE DAYS LATER, SOMETHING REALLY STRANGE HAPPENS. THEY RELEASE THEM AND ARREST A WHITE HUSKY MENTALLY RETARDED KID AND THE FRAME HIM DO NOT EVEN ALLOW HIM A TRAIL AND SENT HIM OFF TO THIS HORRIBLE MENTAL INSTITUTE
TED SIMONS: LAST QUESTION, YOU WERE A PHOTOGRAPHER AND ALL SORTS OF THINGS. HOW DOES A FASHION PHOTOGRAPHER, KID FROM LONG ISLAND BE A CIVIL RIGHTS HISTORIAN?
GILBERT KING: I CAN'T EXPLAIN IT. I WAS A READER AND I FELL INTO PHOTOGRAPHY. THAT JUST HAPPENED TO BE MY JOB. AS I GOT OLDER I SAID THIS IS WHAT I WANT TO DO, AND I STARTED WRITING.
TED SIMONS: AND YOU HAVE BEEN SUCCESSFUL AT IT.
Gilbert King: Pulitzer Prize-Winning Author