by Catherine Manfra
On this bright, balmy Friday afternoon in Key West, Gilbert King cleared the air about some of Florida’s shady history.
Mr. King began by recognizing that while he typically begins many of his talks with a dark tone because of the very sunny day he was going to do the opposite.
He began by speaking about the disappointment of his first book – The Execution of Willie Francis. Many writers and readers in the crowd could understand that disappointment. After putting blood, sweat and tears into research for so many years to not get much of a response from your book can be a punch to the gut and make you wonder whether to even bother with another book.
He literally had that conversation with his agent when he proposed his next book idea!
He went ahead anyway and this time it paid off not just to his benefit, but to the benefit of the Groveland Four.
In Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America that was printed in 2012.
As Mr. King described the investigation he embarked on to uncover documents, find evidence, as well as literally be told by the current sheriff of Lake County what went down back in the day. It seemed like everything just fell into place.
The audience could empathize with King when he received a letter from the publisher stating that he had remainders of the book, which basically equated to his book not selling enough copies and that the leftovers would be turned into pulp.
He then went on to describe how he found out he was a Pulitzer Prize winner for nonfiction as he was playing golf with his best friend. He received a text message stating that he had won to which his reaction was that this was some elaborate scheme on his friend’s part. Then his cell phone began to blow up with calls.
At one point he was even receiving a call from the New York Times and his friend told him, “Tell them you have a subscription already.”
As a result of the attention he brought to this case, after Desantis took office as Governor of Florida, he ended up making it a priority to uncover the truth and as a result the Groveland Four were eventually exonerated of the crime.
His notoriety from this book then brought him to uncover another case in Lake County that would become his third book –Beneath a Ruthless Sun: A True Story of Violence, Race, and Justice Lost and Found.
King acknowledged that his favorite part of the whole process is the actual investigation process. He mentioned how that is his true passion. The writing part is secondary.
In his most recent endeavor, he has entered into the realm of podcasts. He is the writer, producer and host of Bone Valley, which looks into yet another case of murder and injustice in Central Florida.
This particular audience member is grateful that writers like King exist to uncover the unsavory truth and as King recognizes there has been some progress in the state of Florida in the sense that in the case of Trayvon Martin, there was a trial to accuse Zimmerman of wrongdoing, while in the past that never would have happened.
Gilbert King makes readers of the true crime drama believe that justice still exists in this chaotic world.
Catherine Manfra is a Miami native and high school English teacher for Miami Dade Public Schools for the past 20 years. She is a recipient of the 2024 Teacher & Librarian scholarship.