By Marion Filler
It’s a fair assumption that not many people in the north have heard of Okahumpka, population 251, in central Florida.
After listening to Gilbert King’s description of what happened there in 1957, visitors to Saturday’s Morristown Festival of Books are not likely to forget it.
King’s new book is aptly titled: Beneath a Ruthless Sun: A True Story of Violence, Race, and Justice Lost and Found.
The story unfolded in the aftermath of the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling that integrated public schools. Southern whites were radicalized, and underlying racial prejudice, never far from the surface, rose up with a fury.
A white woman, wife a citrus baron, was raped by a black man in her home. She reported the crime and a description of the perpetrator to the police. But her husband decided it would be less humiliating for his wife if the perpetrator were white rather than black.
The ruling class went into action. Jesse Daniels, a white, mentally disabled boy of 19, was framed for the crime. The complicity extended to the police, prosecutors, judges, doctors, the coroner and corner’s jury.
Some had to be coerced, especially those who knew the boy. But all went along. He was convicted and sentenced to the Chattahoochee Mental Institution.
Reporter Mabel Norris Reese smelled a rat. Her story was called a fake (sound familiar?) She was threatened, and her newspaper maligned (also sound familiar?) and driven out of town.
Reese moved 60 miles away, but kept at it. Police records disappeared. So did newspaper files, and library microfilm. Reese died. She never had kept any files — with one miraculous exception: Her material about the Jesse Daniels case.
All her notes and documentation were found by a granddaughter in a musty old box. She knew of King’s interest in the case and called him.
The case was reopened, and after 14 years, Jesse was exonerated and received $70,000 for what he had endured.
King, winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Devil in the Grove, has written about race and civil rights for many years, in the Atlantic, the New York Times and the Washington Post. The Brooklyn writer also is a contributor to the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that focuses on the criminal justice system.
What was it about this particular case that attracted him?
“I really didn’t want to go to Florida again – this was the third case from Okahumpka to go to the Florida Supreme Court,” King told the audience at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church.
“But Evvie Griffin, a deputy who had worked on the case, contacted me a while ago and told me all about what had happened. There was a story there that I could not ignore.”