It was that rare LWVOC Hot Topics on a Monday, instead of a Wednesday. No matter the day, this month’s HT was another hit, another full house, another appearance by author Gilbert King.
This time, King talked about his new book, “Beneath a Ruthless Sun” – which, like his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Devil in the Grove” (2012), is set in Lake County during its white-supremacy past.
Judge Emerson Thompson Jr., the interlocuter, was ready with a long list of questions for King, and the author didn’t disappoint.
Both King books feature the infamous Sheriff Willis McCall and his penchant for locking up innocent people. In “Ruthless Sun,” a young man named Jesse Daniels, a mentally deficient 19-year-old white man, is packed off to the state mental hospital Chattahoochee (without a trial) – McCall is behind the miscarriage of justice in a case involving a white woman, Blanche Knowles, being raped in 1957 in her Okahumpka home. She said it was a black man (and it was), but McCall and the white power structure in Lake made Daniels the fall guy, ostensibly because it wouldn’t do for a well-heeled white woman, wife of a citrus baron, to admit in court that she had been raped by a black man.
King said he happened onto the Jesse Daniels case when a former Lake County law officer came up to him at a book signing for “Devil in the Grove,” calling it a case no one had written a book about. Actually, a lot was written about the case by Mount Dora/Daytona Beach journalist Mabel Norris Reese, a crusading reporter if ever there was one. She and Jesse Daniels’ mother Pearl are the heroes in the book. For Mrs. Daniels’ part, she wrote letters to Gov. LeRoy Collins and even J. Edgar Hoover about her son’s fate.
The small Lake County town Okahumpka, King said, figured in three cases that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court: the Jesse Daniels case, the Groveland Boys case (covered in “Devil in the Grove”) and the Virgil Hawkins case (Hawkins wanted to be the first African-American to be admitted to the University of Florida Law School). Melvin Hawkins, nephew of Virgil, was locked up by McCall as a suspect in the Knowles rape – picked up probably because his uncle was trying to integrate the UF school.
It was a reign of terror in Florida during the McCall years, what with murders, cases not brought to trial, an active KKK and Lake County prosecutor Gordon Oldham (in cahoots with McCall and the white power structure). In fact, NAACP lawyers in the state for the Groveland Boys trial called Florida “the most dangerous place we’ve ever been.”
Jesse Daniels was freed from Chattahoochee after 14 years, thanks to the efforts of his mother, Mabel Norris Reese and others, including DeLand attorney Richard Graham. Daniels lives in Daytona Beach; Gilbert King interviewed him for his book.
Postscript: In the audience for Monday’s program was former Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles T. Wells.