By Tirzah McMillan
SPRINGFIELD — Early Thursday afternoon, a group of 12 students had the unique opportunity to speak with award winning author Gilbert King in The Forum of the Learning Commons. The Journalistic Ethics class, taught by Communications/Sports Journalism Professor Martin Dobrow, has spent the semester dissecting the moral code of journalists and the daily challenges they face in the current media driven climate.
Beneath a Ruthless Sun, one of King’s three well-renowned books, involves a grappling rape case that exposes the exploitation of race, class, and corruption of justice in the Florida citrus groves during the 1950’s. The detailed account displays remarkable reporting skills and countless hours of thorough research — in hopes of learning from King, the students sat attentively, prepared with questions to ask the seasoned author.
The conversation began lightheartedly. King, displayed on the two large screens in The Forum, comfortably introduced himself to the class. The Brooklyn native always knew he wanted to become a writer, but it was not until he began working with publishers and editors as a professional photographer that he got his first glimpse into the near future.
Growing up in upstate New York, King never came across civil rights stories, but when he finally did, he was shocked by the atrocities that were happening in America.
From thereon King’s interest grew. African-Americans who had endured the hardships and backlash of racism in America were, “the greatest underdogs you could ever imagine,” said King. “Those young men and women were [just] trying to live the American dream.” His passion for research and interest for dark stories that needed to be heard are what drove him to write, and inspired him to find out the truth of what happened in Lake County, Florida.
“You can’t always get people to talk to you,” noted King. “That’s the problem.” It takes years to create criminal investigative books of the caliber that King does, and in many instances, his sources either turned him down or were not completely forthcoming with him. “People in Lake County did not want the story out there,” said King.
Mabel Norris Reese, the reporter who closely covered the Jesse Daniels case in Beneath a Ruthless Sun, was the owner of the Mt. Dora Topic before being driven out of the county for her “communist” views. After doing some digging, and traveling to the Topic, King was told, “we are missing the [entire] year of 1958 copies at Mt. Dora Topic.” King found this to be uncoincidental, and almost gave up on the project in its entirety, but he got lucky.
After Reese’s daughter Patricia died, her granddaughter called King and informed him that she had found a box in her mother’s attic filled with some of her grandmother’s old files. It turned out to be the entire Jesse Daniels case — letters she had written to congress, articles she had written for newspapers, pictures, etc. It sparked King’s light to continue pushing. “If it weren’t for journalists like Mabel,” said King. “[Jess Daniels would have continued to be tortured in a mental institution until his death.”
Although his work is very similar, King does not consider himself a journalist. “I’m very selective about the stories I pursue,” King explained. “I write books that give me the luxury of a lot of time,” he continued. “[But] when you’re telling non-fiction, you don’t always get neat, happy, clean endings.”
Similarly, when journalists are writing the first draft of history, more often than not the endings are never neat or happy, but they are honest and real. This shared desire for justice for humanity is what bridged the gap between the students in the classroom and the man on the screen.
“Journalists need to thicken their skin,” said King passionately. “Because this is a fight that is worth fighting for.” With the current race relations in America, both journalists and authors alike have a lot to criteria to work with, but at the end of the day, racism will never be a simple story.
“In history you’re always going to see two steps forward and one step back when it comes to race,” said King in his closing words. “But I don’t think you can stop the progress. I’m very hopeful.”
Both influential and insightful, Professor Marty Dobrow hopes to get Gilbert King on campus during the Spring semester for a reading.
For more information on King and his work, please visit: http://www.gilbertking.com