Beneath a Ruthless Sun: A True Story of Violence, Race, and Justice Lost and Found

Beneath a Ruthless Sun: A True Story of Violence, Race, and Justice Lost and Found

by Gilbert King


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"Compelling, insightful and important, Beneath a Ruthless Sun exposes the corruption of racial bigotry and animus that shadows a community, a state and a nation. A fascinating examination of an injustice story all too familiar and still largely ignored, an engaging and essential read." —Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy

From the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning bestseller Devil in the Grove, the gripping true story of a small town with a big secret.

In December 1957, the wife of a Florida citrus baron is raped in her home while her husband is away. She claims a "husky Negro" did it, and the sheriff, the infamous racist Willis McCall, does not hesitate to round up a herd of suspects. But within days, McCall turns his sights on Jesse Daniels, a gentle, mentally impaired white nineteen-year-old. Soon Jesse is railroaded up to the state hospital for the insane, and locked away without trial.
But crusading journalist Mabel Norris Reese cannot stop fretting over the case and its baffling outcome. Who was protecting whom, or what? She pursues the story for years, chasing down leads, hitting dead ends, winning unlikely allies. Bit by bit, the unspeakable truths behind a conspiracy that shocked a community into silence begin to surface.

Beneath a Ruthless Sun tells a powerful, page-turning story rooted in the fears that rippled through the South as integration began to take hold, sparking a surge of virulent racism that savaged the vulnerable, debased the powerful, and roils our own times still.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780399183386
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/24/2018
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 1,183,701
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.70(d)

About the Author

Gilbert King was awarded the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in Nonfiction for The Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America, which was also a New York Times bestseller and a finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. A featured contributor to Smithsonian magazine and The Marshall Project, King also writes about justice for The New York Times and The Washington Post. He lives in New York City.

Read an Excerpt

For Mabel Norris Reese, Wednesdays had a special routine. Wednesday was the day the Mount Dora Topic, the weekly newspaper that she and her husband, Paul, owned and ran, went to press. The alarm clock would go off at four a.m. in their house on Morningside Drive in Sylvan Shores, a small, upscale community of Mediterranean Revival and ranch homes along the west side of Lake Gertrude. Within the hour, Mabel would be barreling along the few miles to the Topic’s office in downtown Mount Dora. There she’d go over that week’s edition, making corrections in the lead galleys, before heading back home to cook break­fast for Paul and their daughter, Patricia.

Once Patricia had been seen off to school, Mabel would return to the office with Paul for the long hours ahead. Side by side, they would dress up the pages of the newspaper together. Harold Rawley, who ran the Linotype machine, would set the pages one metal line of type at a time, to be inked and printed later that night on the Old Topper, the Topic’s big press. Mrs. Downs, a seventy- two- year- old widow who had taken over the print work from her late husband, would stand in the hot air atop the press platform, feeding sheets of paper into the jaws of the loud, cranky machine that birthed the “inky babies,” as Mabel called them.

Sturdy and still stylish at forty- three, Mabel favored printed cotton shirtwaist dresses, which she sometimes wore with pearls, and with her bebopper’s cat- eye glasses she was easily spotted out and about in old- fashioned Mount Dora. In addition to covering meetings, writing stories and weekly editori­als, taking photographs, and selling ads, Mabel worked the arm on the wing mailer and slapped name stickers on each freshly printed copy un­til, as she liked to tell Patricia, “the pile on the left goes way down and the pile on the right climbs to a mountain.” (Patricia herself attended to the wrapping and stamping of the papers, and Paul and his brother deliv­ered the lot of them to the post office.)

Mabel had performed this strenuous Wednesday routine more than five hundred times in the ten years that she and Paul had been publishing the Topic. She’d missed only two issues— once when she’d been briefly hospitalized and once the previous summer, when she’d traveled to Illi­nois to accept a journalism award. But when, in the wee hours of December 18, rumors of a white woman’s rape began to circulate, Mabel deviated from her normal Wednesday routine and instead followed her reportorial instincts. They took her to Okahumpka, where she’d heard that residents of North Quarters were being harassed. There she found that Sheriff McCall’s deputies were not only terrorizing the residents but also arresting on suspicion virtually every young black male in the neighborhood. One of them described how Negro suspects were being rounded up and taken in by up to five carloads at a time. “They woke me up at two a.m. and told me I would get the electric chair if they didn’t kill me beforehand,” he said. Another Okahumpka resident told Mabel, “They took in thirty- three of our menfolk. Not just men, but boys, too . . . A body couldn’t do anything but wait for ’em to come pounding on the door.”

By daybreak, Mabel had pages of notes to transcribe, and they reverberated with fear— fear that, once again, the Lake County Sheriff’s Department was indiscriminately rounding up young black men, and that, once again, violence would come of it. “A restlessness began to run through the quarters,” Mabel wrote, “and it mounted steadily.”

Table of Contents

Chapter 1 A Killing Freeze 3

Chapter 2 Real Sunshine 19

Chapter 3 Smoked Irishman 41

Chapter 4 Make Tracks 69

Chapter 5 Sensational Lies 93

Chapter 6 You Will Not Turn Us Down 111

Chapter 7 No Suitable Place 131

Chapter 8 Well-Laid Plan 157

Chapter 9 So Much Race Pride 177

Chapter 10 Don't Talk to Me About Conscience, Lady 193

Chapter 11 Way of Justice 221

Chapter 12 If It Takes All Summer 247

Chapter 13 Troubled by It 265

Chapter 14 Faith in Blanche 287

Chapter 15 Someone Should Write a Book 305

Chapter 16 Whether They Be White or Black 321

Chapter 17 A Newspaper Woman 343

Epilogue 363

Acknowledgments 377

Notes 381

Index 405

What People are Saying About This

Bryan Stephenson

Compelling, insightful and important, Gilbert King exposes the corruption of racial bigotry and animus that shadows a community, a state and a nation. A fascinating examination of an injustice story all too familiar and still largely ignored, an engaging and essential read

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