Pulitzer Prize winner captivates Skyroom audience

By Jason Ucab


Author Gilbert King shared the trials, tribulations and research that went into his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Thursday, Oct. 24, with an appreciative crowd at the University of the Incarnate Word.

Held at McCombs Center Rosenberg Skyroom, King focused on the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who’s at the center of the book, “Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys and the dawn of a New America.”

Started five years ago, the book is a nonfiction look at the 1949 case of four black men — Ernest Thomas, Charles Greenlee, Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvin – who were wrongfully accused of raping 17-year-old Norma Padgett. So strong was the book’s message and effect that it earned King the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction as well as Non-fiction Book of the Year from The Boston Globe and Christian Science Monitor.

The story takes place during Marshall’s spearheading of the civil rights movement in landmark cases such as Brown vs. the Board of Education. King said Marshall was concurrently working murder and rape trials during this time.

“One of the things Marshall said was he knew the voting rights cases he worked on, the housing cases, the segregation cases he knew that was gonna have benefits for African Americans for years to come, but he says, you know, that these criminal cases are the most important because they save lives.”

King relayed images of Marshall riding trains to different trials and avoiding Klansmen and threats to his life. He also painted a picture of life in Groveland, Fla. How Sheriff Willis McCall won consecutive elections regardless of his twisted, racist beliefs; how McCall shot two of the defendants point-blank while they pretended to be dead. He told of how crime scenes and witnesses were compromised, how the young Padgett was coerced into the untrue story by her abusive husband, Willie Padgett, and why she held onto her silence throughout the years.

Preparation for the book started five years ago and King was put to task to get it out by his 2012 deadline: dealing with travel, countless interviews, requesting deadline extensions and compiling research from the mountain of cold files.

Students of sociology, law and communications arts would have found this lecture to be particularly fulfilling. King touched on a variety of subjects and situations students would have engaged in their respective concentrations. Everything from manipulating the media, the Supreme Court decision on coerced confessions, the realities of plea-bargaining and basic civil rights issues were featured in this case, which could get more notoriety with a possible movie in the making.

King’s anecdote about the FBI, National Archives and Freedom of Information Act would have had media law students suddenly appreciating the real-world applications of classroom lessons.

“If you’re looking for one page or one document, it’s a very easy thing to do. With my thing it was called a ‘deep file’ so it means I’m requesting thousands of pages and they say ‘We can do it, but you’re going on a list,’ and I had to wait. I kept calling month after month for almost a year and finally they said, ‘Mr. King, today’s your lucky day. After 60 years these cases become public domain.’ So, in effect, I jumped all the way to the top of the list.”


King said he tried to interview Norma Padgett for the book but was told by her niece to “ ‘Let sleeping dogs lie.’ ”




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