A wealthy Southern socialite is raped in her home during the last gasps of Jim Crow. Her young children are asleep nearby; her husband is away on a tryst disguised as business. She calls the family attorney, who calls the sheriff. Her initial story is clear: She was raped by a “husky Negro.” Within hours, police round up several black boys and men from their shantytowns.
If it sounds like a story you’ve heard before, this one comes with a twist: All the suspects are suddenly released as police arrest Jesse Daniels, a man-boy well-known in his central Florida community. He bicycles throughout the countryside to collect the mail, take odd jobs or visit his favorite fishing hole. He lives with his war-disabled father and his uneducated, hardworking mother. He is simple-minded, easily confused — and white.
If this now sounds like a story of colorblind justice — a glimmer of enlightenment in the wake of Brown vs. Board and the push for a desegregated South — the twist turns again: White Jesse Daniels is considered a “more socially acceptable” rapist of a high-society matron than any black man — even the one who likely committed the crime. He is rushed through an interrogation and — deemed incompetent to stand trial — sent to a Dickensian state mental hospital, where he will spend nearly 20 years.
In a gripping tale of entrenched racism and complicity, Gilbert King returns to the same patch of Florida that provided fodder for his earlier book, “Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America,” winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction. His impeccable pickax journalism for that work hit another vein of shame in America’s all-too-recent past for “Beneath a Ruthless Sun.”
Some of King’s characters in his first book reappear in the second but are no less richly drawn. As with the story itself, they flirt with cliché: a crusading woman reporter who risks all to expose the truth; an all-powerful old-boys’ club that will go to any length to hide it; and a county sheriff who brings the notorious Bull Connor to mind.
But King’s reporting defies cliché with depth and specificity. He holds to verifiable facts and knows how to let a story and characters evolve. A book with an inevitable arc contains surprises along the way — surprises that show how additional injustices were perpetrated in service of the original. Lies are like that.
King’s book haunts as an uncurtained stare into history. His annotated research notes cover 25 pages and represent a narrative of fact that should challenge even the most skeptical reader. But the real power comes as King pulls back layer upon layer of the dark veils of complicity, revealing a history that is much darker than we might want to see — and much more current.
Jacqui Banaszynski is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and emerita professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. She teaches at the Poynter Institute and coaches writers worldwide.
Beneath a Ruthless Sun
By: Gilbert King.
Publisher: Riverhead Books, 416 pages, $28.