Pulitzer-Prize winning author Gilbert King speaks with Style about his book Devil in the Grove, a gripping, well-told saga about a forgotten case of racial injustice in Lake County.
STORY: Gary McKechnie // PHOTOS: Fred Lopez
Fate is impartial. It has a habit of altering history for rich and poor, black and white, and in matters large and small. Had Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvin not stopped to lend a hand to Willie Padgett and his 17-year-old bride Norma Lee on the side of a dark Lake County road in 1949, there’s a chance neither of them would ever have known of the secret torture chamber in the basement of the Lake County Courthouse.
But when Willie and Norma Lee repaid the kindness of the 22-year-old black men with an accusation of rape, it led the two army veterans and 16-year-old Charles Greenlee — three of the four so-called ‘Groveland Boys’ — into the dungeon manned by Sheriff Willis McCall and deputies James Yates and Leroy Campbell. Following the sham of a trial, Shepherd and Irvin traveled to Florida’s Death Row, their case earning the attention of the world’s media and the NAACP — attention that reached a fever pitch the evening McCall and Yates opened fire on their handcuffed prisoners on a lonely clay road near Umatilla.
In the early 1950s, Tavares was the arena where Thurgood Marshall and his fellow attorneys would square off against McCall, State Attorney Jesse Hunter, and Judge Truman Futch in a battle between justice and Jim Crow, between civil rights and brute force, and between a nation looking to the future and living in the past.
Gilbert King had invested four years researching and writing Devil In The Grove, a book—suggests the subtitle—about Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America. Yet even with a string of outstanding reviews from literary critics and publications, there were rumors that Devil would disappear into sales bins only a year after its release.
It’s funny what a Pulitzer Prize can do.
While golfing at The Villages last April, King learned that his book had won the Pulitzer for General Non-Fiction, which, in turn, prompted Lionsgate to green light a film version expected to be released in 2015.
While King can look forward to new possibilities and prospects, he remains intrigued by Lake County. During a July visit, King reflected on his fascination with the case, the reaction of local residents, and his transformation from stand-up comedian to Pulitzer Prize-winning author.
Lake & Sumter Style: How did you learn about the Groveland Boys?
Gilbert King: I was working on my last book The Execution of Willie Francis and I started seeing all these memos Thurgood Marshall had written in regard to how to conduct the case — what you could do media-wise, such as getting movie stars to put pressure on certain people. And I thought, “This guy’s really sophisticated; he’s keeping the case in the public eye.” I thought he was just a lawyer, but he’s also a PR guy, too, and it made me curious as to what else he was doing at the time.
So I started looking through some of his criminal files at the Library of Congress and found this Groveland case. His hands were all over it. It was an unbelievably dramatic case and I hadn’t read anything about it in history books or civil rights texts. It just wasn’t showing up. So I started looking into it a little bit more and thought this would make an interesting book.
STYLE: Why did this particular case catch your interest?
GK: I like the idea of a legal thriller. The possibilities of two innocent men going to the electric chair — especially if the clock is ticking and some people are trying to save them while others are trying to kill them faster — doesn’t get any more dramatic than that.
I thought if I could have a story that had all of this drama and the crime element and the murder mystery elements — but also add a sort of legal and historical angle — it could be a really fulfilling, deep story.
STYLE: By chance, at the Old Courthouse, you met the current county attorney who wanted to see the basement as much as you. For people who haven’t read your book, why is that basement so important?
GK: Here you have a majestic building that is sort of the centerpiece of town, yet below it there are weird things happening. Sheriff McCall’s office was in the building and the jail was on the fourth floor. When they wanted to start the questioning, they would bring the suspect down to this basement where there were no witnesses. They would handcuff and suspend suspects from the pipes above, put broken glass beneath their bare feet, and punch and beat the guys with lead-filled hoses to get a confession. If that worked, they could go out on the stairs and tell the media, “We got a confession,” knowing the media will print that and it will reach the jury pool. Therefore, at the trial, the jury knows the defendant already said they were guilty and the police and Sheriff McCall said so, too. And since McCall’s an honorable man, this was just good police work, but everyone knows what’s going on.
STYLE: What may shock local readers is seeing some familiar family names, as well as places like Tavares, Umatilla, Groveland, and Mount Dora. But this was a different place then.
GK: It’s interesting to know you’re living in a place where certain things happened. Sheriff McCall, who lived in Umatilla, ruled Lake County, and his deputy James Yates was from Mount Dora. I found it interesting that after the shooting of James Shepherd and Walter Irvin, Irvin survived and accused Deputy Yates of firing the last shot at him. Reporters went to Yates’ house in Mount Dora and asked for a comment. His exact words were, “It’s a funny thing… no comment.”
I thought that was a very strange response if someone accused you of attempted murder.
STYLE: As you read the book, you think if this story weren’t so tragic, it’d be comic.
GK: All of the things that led to their convictions were sort of laughable. The amount of prosecutorial misconduct. The evidence gathering. One of the defense attorneys in the case, Frank Williams, said, “I felt like I was in a movie… all of the evidence was too pat.” Of course they had the tire tracks — they had confiscated the car. Of course they had shoe prints — they took their shoes. All of the things that fell together as evidence, and all of the evidence that was denied, sort of fit into the idea of a movie. Like Williams said, it was too perfect.
STYLE: It’s hard to imagine a time when the legal system was represented by men like Jesse Hunter and Judge Futch.
GK: At that time, accused black citizens in the South really had no chance. There were no lawyers for them. If any group of African-Americans tried to protest, they would’ve been killed. It was too dangerous. These guys knew their place and they knew their place for a good reason — there was violence that often followed.
STYLE: You mentioned you receive many letters from Lake County residents saying they were unaware that history was happening here.
GK: Yes, many from people in their 60s and 70s who were young then tell me almost unanimously they didn’t know this was going on and their parents never told them about it. But this became a huge civil rights case. Thurgood Marshall came down here and the case was on the front page of countless newspapers across the country and overseas. Yet even in this county where something big like this happened, people didn’t want to talk about it.
It’s been an awakening for people who’ve read this book. They feel inspired to write me and tell me it opened up dialogues within their household. Sometimes feelings are still raw, but some people are coming to terms with their parents and grandparents about what it was like in Lake County and really, what it was like in a great part of the South.
STYLE: Between your last book and this one, Thurgood Marshall has become a hero of yours. What is it about him that earns your admiration?
GK: He was larger than life and unbelievably ethical. That was surprising because other lawyers were saying they could use shortcuts, but he would always say, “No, we can’t afford to do any of that. It’s important that we stay above any controversy.”
STYLE: Which makes it strange that when he came to Lake County, he couldn’t even stay here since there were no hotels for blacks.
GK: Right. So usually what Marshall and the rest of his team did was stay at private houses. But even back then, people thought it was too dangerous to have these NAACP lawyers stay in Lake County, so they’d travel back to Orlando.
What’s interesting about Marshall’s visits is that they arranged a car service to take him back and forth from Orlando to the courthouse, and the only thing they could find was a hearse. So he and the other lawyers would climb into a hearse and go to the courthouse. Then they would climb back in the hearse and drive back to the houses. It was kind of a strange, symbolic ride they were taking.
GK: Right. People are starting to read the book and it’s a different experience. I’m not trying to convince them to read it. It’s more along the lines that they’re talking about what this book means to American history because it’s kind of an area that’s been glossed over. We know there was a Civil War and Lincoln freed the slaves and signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Then Martin Luther King, Jr., came along and he was very inspiring… but there was actually a big section in the middle there that’s a little uncomfortable. We’re talking about laws that held down a certain part of the population for 100 years and it’s not like everything is OK now. These are the things that we’re dealing with in society that happened not that long ago. They’re sort of ramifications to the way people were treated, by law, 50 years ago. So that was sort of what I was trying to point out.
STYLE: One last thing: Years ago, you and I performed comedy at the same Orlando club. How does a comedic mind turn out a book like this?
GK: It’s really not that far of a stretch. All the comedians I know are really bright and well-informed. I just think people who are drawn to stand-up comedy are interested in looking at the world a little differently. They see it differently. They are able to see and observe things differently and they point to the truth in a different kind of way.
For more information about Gilbert King and ‘Devil in the Grove’, visit www.gilbertking.com.