By Danny Priest
On Tuesday evening inside Fuller Arts Center Springfield College hosted its sixth annual Martin Luther King Jr. lecture. This year’s event was called “Journalism and Civil Rights: Justice Lost and Found” and featured guest speaker Gilbert King.
King, who won a Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction writing in 2013 for his book Devil in the Grove, came to campus to discuss his newest publication, Beneath a Ruthless Sun, which came out in April of 2018.
Fuller Arts center was crowded with students, faculty, and community members who sat and listened from their seats as King stood behind the podium and in his gray button down dress shirt and blue jeans captivated the audience with the tales chronicled in his new book.
King touched on the history of racism in America and aside from the clapping at the beginning and end of his presentation, the only responses elicited from the crowd were gasps and groans.
Groans, gasps, and headshakes of disappointment and anger, and embarrassment at the ugly truths King touched on in his lecture.
The presentation began with a brief history lesson on what was happening in America during the 1950s when the book takes place, and King went over some of the happenings.
After the history lesson, he transitioned into talking about his own book which takes place in the small town of Okahumpka, located in Lake County, Florida.
King reports deeply on this small town that had to battle the horrors of racism, including three separate Civil Rights cases from the town with a population of 250 people that wound up reaching the Supreme Court.
He covers all of the drama and ugly truths, while also shining a light on the heroic efforts of a female journalist from that time period by the name of Mabel Norris Reese.
His book goes heavy into covering the drama that surrounded Reese’s reporting and her fight against Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall. The Sheriff was an extremely racist man, but Reese did not back down from exposing his ugly habits.
At one point in his lecture, King explained the repercussions that Reese faced for her role in reporting some of the events in Okahumpka.
“(White supremacists) put a cross in her yard and burn it, it nearly ignites her house on fire. Two days later, they show up at her office, vandalize it, deface it with KKK crosses and letters, they throw a stake that’s poisoned with strychnine over into her yard and kill her dog,” King said.
The abuse did not stop there. “Then they throw two bombs, one night after the other at her house. Military bombs are thrown at her house. The last and final straw that they did with Mabel was the white supremacists opened up a rival newspaper in Mount Dora and basically supported all of the sheriff’s actions and called for no desegregation of public schools. Willis McCall went around to all her advertisers and threatened them and said you are not to advertise with Mabel if you know what’s good for you.”
This was one of those moments that garnered groans from the audience.
King continued to pull out example after example of racism, and the abuse towards Reese for covering it. He references an interview with white supremacist Hoss Manucy who in the 1970s spoke about the role of journalists.
According to King, Manucy said, “Most of those boys they were contributing to our cause, except for that one paper. That lady from the Daytona paper, she was the only one who gave us problems.”
King added, “Of course he was talking about Mabel Norris Reese.”
The lecture led to a charged up audience by the time it was over. When the mic was turned over for questions the topics revolved around the present day justice system, bridging the gaps in society between races, addressing history, and the role of modern journalism. To his credit, King was not shy about answering questions.
He remarked that our justice system has taken steps forward from the days of the 1950s and 1960s, but it is still facing issues.
“We have different problems now. Mass incarceration, we have people who are sitting in jail for three years awaiting trial, people who are pleading guilty to crimes they didn’t even commit because they can get out for time served. What kind of justice system allows that to happen?,” he said.
He also addressed the United States government’s lack of response to past injustices in the nation such as slavery. “We’ve never had a reckoning with our past. We haven’t had any kind of understanding and reconciliation with slavery in this country,” he said.
He pointed out how Germany for instance addressed World War II and the Holocaust after they happened so the events would never be repeated.He wanted to see that same type of effort out of this country. “We’ve never really addressed it as a government and if we don’t acknowledge this (slavery), I don’t see how you’re serious about trying to change the present and the future.”
King wrapped up his talk adding that the need for journalists and honest journalism is not going anywhere.
“The role of journalism has never been more important than it is today. It’s one of those cycles that we’re going through that journalists really have to be persistent and have their foot up to the task,” he said.
King talked about a publisher from Daytona who told him something that he said he would never forget. He quotes the person as saying, “This is the day of journalist being the enemy of the people and fake news. We’re under fire, but we’re not experiencing anything like what Mabel Reese experienced in Lake County; we really need to pick up our games and toughen up.”
King left the audience with a word of advice, but also a challenge. “I write about history, but there’s a need for people to write about the present,” he said. “You have to be relentless because you’re going to be up against a force. In the present, they’ll fight back a little more.”
After that, the groans turned back into applause.
Immediately following the lecture and Q&A, the Springfield College Office of Inclusion and Community Engagement presented their inaugural Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion awards.
Vice President for Inclusion and Community Engagement Calvin Hill described the recipients of the awards as individuals who “must have demonstrated a commitment to advancing the efforts of diversity, equity and inclusion at Springfield College, or within the community; served as an advocate or agent of change within their sphere of influence on campus or within the community; and have implemented programs and or services or initiatives, which have fostered greater appreciation for building authentic relationships at Springfield College and or within the community.”
Three awards, which were co-sponsored by New Valley Bank and Trust, were issued–one to a student, one to a staff member, and one to a community member.
Senior Kathleen Morris was the student selected, Professor of Sociology Laurel Davis-Delano was the staff member selected, and community member Robert “Cee” Jackson was chosen.
Each honoree was photographed with their awards following the lecture.
Photo Courtesy Sam Leventhal