A spellbinding true story of racism, privilege, and official corruption.
In 1957, in the tiny central Florida town of Okahumpka, a prominent white woman was raped; she described her attacker as a young "Negro with bushy hair." Lake County sheriff and reputed KKK leader Willis McCall indiscriminately rounded up nearly two dozen young black men for interrogation, ultimately holding two incommunicado for days as prime suspects. But then McCall astonished everyone by releasing them both and charging Jesse Daniels, a poor, mentally challenged 19-year-old white youth who could not possibly have committed the crime. He colluded with a prosecutor and judge to pack Daniels off to be warehoused at the state mental hospital with neither a trial nor a legal determination of insanity. It seemed the case was closed but for the persistence of McCall's nemesis, Mabel Norris Reese, editor of a local weekly. Pulitzer Prize winner King (Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America, 2012, etc.) thus launches an electrifying 20-year saga of murders, beatings, cross-burnings, bombings, fabricated evidence, and conveniently missing documents, all part of a racist reign of terror victimizing both blacks and whites and supported by an impenetrable elite of white citrus planters, cops, lawyers, politicians, and judges. The author draws on thousands of pages of unpublished documents, including court filings and testimony, hospital records, legislative materials, and personal files, to assemble this page-turner, suffused with a palpable atmosphere of dread. He clearly documents the lawless ferocity with which much of Florida resisted granting equal rights to blacks even as it marketed itself as a space-age vacation paradise. From the opening pages, King's narrative barrels forward, leaving readers wondering what it will take for justice to prevail.
By turns sobering, frightening, and thrilling, this meticulous account of the power and tenacity of officially sanctioned racism recalls a dark era that America is still struggling to leave behind.