“Beneath the Ruthless Sun” 

By Gilbert King. A true story of tragedy due to racial bias.

Story: Diane Dean

The Bookworm Book Club hosted an evening with Gilbert King, author of “Beneath the Ruthless Sun,” an account of the 1957 rape of a wealthy woman in Okahumpka and the injustice directed at suspects. Initially, nearly every black man in an area known the Quarters was taken in. Racism and corruption, including falsifying evidence, rose again, as they did in King’s previous Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Devil in the Grove.”

Jesse Daniels, 19 and mentally deficient, was charged with a rape he did not commit and sent to the Florida State Hospital for the Insane in Chattahoochee for 17 years. There was no trial. Sheriff Willis McCall, leader of this atrocity, was in King’s prior book. However, Gordon Oldham, the state attorney, was the real culprit behind the conspiracy to railroad Jesse, who still slept with his teddy bear.

Mabel Norris Reese was the heroic crusading reporter for the Mount Dora Topic (until political pressure aimed at advertisers closed it down) and the Daytona Beach News-Journal. King describes Reese as “a reporter with a fondness for bebop glasses and a history as a troublemaker for the powers-that-be was about to begin a long and ruinous crusade to run the whole lawless gang out of gas.” Reese revealed the unfairness and exposed the corruption. She was rewarded with crosses burned on her lawn and her pet poisoned. Eventually, she was given the “Courage in Journalism” award.

Others who were in the fight to free Jesse: Evvie Griffin, eventually a Lake County sheriff; Richard Graham, Jesse’s pro bono attorney; and Al Albright, an FBI agent who investigated McCall.

King noted, “after the 1954 decision on Brown vs. Board of Education, the activity of the Ku Klux Klan resurged, Sheriff McCall achieved more power, white supremacy groups became active.” King believes equality in schools and voting rights are issues still related to racism.

Five years of research through hospital records, legislative transcripts, court documents, and personal interviews are in the story and leave no doubt of his devotion to exonerate Jesse Daniels. The author lays out the atrocities by law enforcement which, in the readers’ eyes, convict those guilty of taking “away his childhood,” as Jesse described it.