On a Thursday night in December, 1957, a big chill comes to a region of Florida that's already frozen in time.
The temperature drops to 12 degrees, destroying much of the citrus trees in Lake County, not far from Orlando. The community can't manage to warm a citrus crop whose value had outpaced the entire state of California the previous year. Then there's more distressing news a few nights later.
A white woman awakens to an intruder in an upscale Georgian-style home with a pair of columns out front. The man rapes her and escapes. Deputies respond and hear her say the assailant was a black man. Soon, authorities are rounding up their usual suspects – just about every young black man they can find. One lands in jail with little evidence.
What happens next unspools in a new book titled Beneath a Ruthless Sun: A True Story of Violence, Race, and Justice Lost and Found. Since this is a Southern tale from the time of Jim Crow, readers might assume the black suspect will be in very deep trouble. But this remarkable story has a surprising twist: Deputies release the black suspect, "the nephew of one of the most hated men in Florida," who'd dared to support integration. Instead, they detain a young, mentally challenged white man.
Soon there's a five-minute hearing that isn't quite a trial, the white suspect is shipped to a horrific facility that isn't quite a jail. And there he stays. And stays.
What's going on? Everything that the subtitle promises and more. "Beneath a Ruthless Sun" is multiple books in one – a gripping true-crime narrative, a deeply wrenching story of American bigotry and corruption, and an inspiring tale of heroes fired by love and righteous fury.
This is familiar territory for author Gilbert King, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his remarkable 2012 bestseller "Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America," another look at violence, injustice, and heroic opposition in Lake County. Both books expose the mid-century rot that pervaded much of Florida and reveal the courage of those who fought back.
In modern times, Florida often seems quintessentially American, just more so: incredibly diverse, politically divided, frequently touched by tragedy, and often just plain weird. But Florida's past is often forgotten. King reminds us of its not-so-distant history as a stronghold of Southern racism and bigotry, a state that produced both horrific violence and courageous protest.
As King notes, its state Supreme Court may have been the most racist of them all, and Florida had the nation's highest lynching rate of any state from 1882-1930. One governor with the unlikely name of Napoleon Bonaparte Broward – yes, the one who ended up with a prominent county named after him – is so disturbed by the violence that he suggests a detestable solution: evict black people from the nation.
Lake County is among the most hostile places in the state for black people. And no wonder: The sheriff in 1957 is openly and proudly racist. "As usual in Lake County," King writes after describing an injustice there, "the wash came out dirty."
Despite the institutional bigotry, however, the sheriff and local prosecutor decide a white man committed the rape and not a black man. This doesn't make sense to Mabel Norris Reese, a newspaperwoman at the small local weekly "with a fondness for bebop glasses and a history as a troublemaker [for] the powers that be."
Reese, who follows the maxim of "be always sure you're right, then go ahead," starts to raise a stink. And then she starts to pay a price.
"Beneath a Ruthless Sun" is about more than one county in one state. King's canvas is large and vivid. Among other topics, he examines attitudes toward insane asylums and he explores the bizarre contradictions of Southern attitudes toward miscegenation, infidelity, and rape.
One theory goes like this: The victim's husband is so racist that he prefers the idea of a fake white attacker to a real black one. King wisely lets the reader decide if the truth lies instead in even more shocking explanation for what happened.
Thanks to transcripts, the most gripping scenes in the book take place in a courtroom and in the room where a suspect is interviewed. One corker of a courtroom exchange is such a stunner that readers will be left astonished.
Fortunately, this is more than a grim story of men gone rogue. There are multiple heroes who did the right thing. Among them, no one tops the dynamic duo of newspaperwoman Reese and her friend Pearl Daniels, the ailing yet tireless mother and lifetime protector of the arrested young white man. These moral hearts of "Beneath a Ruthless Sun" refuse to be cowed by threats and actual violence. Nor do they give in when injustice drags on for years, then decades.
As King writes, "they had a significant trait in common: They would not back down from a fight."
When tragedy strikes these days, we're often reminded of the comforting words that Fred Rogers, the host of "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" learned from his own mother: "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping."
When we face moral catastrophe in our own communities, this extraordinary book suggests there's a similar route to inspiration and comfort: Look for the women who refuse to yield.