Gilbert King, whom I happen to know as a publishing acquaintance, got some welcome and unexpected news last week. His book, Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys and the Dawn of a New America, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in the general nonfiction category. King didn’t know that his publisher HarperCollins had submitted his book for consideration of the prize. A NY Times story published tonight profiles the unpretentious King, who was on a golf course in Florida when he got the news from a friend’s text: “Dude. Pulitzer.”
With refreshing modesty, King, whose book was published in March 2012, told the Times reporter William Grimes, “‘I’m sure people who write the big, critically acclaimed books know if they’re in the running. . . . But I’d just gotten a notice from my publisher that the book had been remaindered.’” The book tells a story of a too-little known incident of racial injustice, when in 1949 four black men were falsely accused of raping a white woman. The villain of the tale is the local sheriff in Groveland, Florida, Willis McCall, who King told Grimes compares unfavorably even with another notorious lawman: “’He made Bull Connor look like Barney Fife,’ the author said, “referring to the notorious commissioner of public safety in Birmingham, Ala., during the civil rights era. ‘Connor used dogs and fire hoses. McCall actually killed people,’” including one of the accused in this case.
King faced a daunting research challenge. While he did have the FBI case files to draw on, he also really needed to see records of the case housed at the NAACP, as Thurgood Marshall, then with the civil rights organization, had defended the accused. Though the organization had never shared such case files, even with eminent academics–because of attorney-client privilege–King persuaded them in this instance by insisting he was only interested in this one case, and none of their other historic cases. It sounds like a remarkable book, one with a terrible miscarriage of justice at the heart of the story that it seeks to redress, just the sort of book I have always enjoyed acquiring and championing as an editor for publishing houses.
I couldn’t be happier for Gilbert King, whose two books have “enjoyed only modest sales.” Grimes writes that King “is undecided what the next project might be. When the Pulitzer news came, ‘I was sort of lying low.’” I hope his next book, whatever he writes about, and whenever he publishes it, will gain recognition from the start. With the Pulitzer in his back pocket, it’s a good bet it will.