If Willis McCall were a fictional character, he’d be too far over the top to be believable. Readers (and editors) would scoff that no one could be such a monster of violent, unabashed racism — and get away with it for so long.
But McCall was all too real. His 28 years (1944-1972) as sheriff of Central Florida’s Lake County constituted a reign of terror over its black residents, and many of its white ones, that beggars belief but is spelled out by the historical records — once those records are uncovered.
Author Gilbert King dug into long-buried records to document some of McCall’s most notorious behavior in his 2012 book Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America, which won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction.
King returns to the McCall saga in his new book, Beneath a Ruthless Sun: A True Story of Violence, Race, and Justice Lost and Found. Like Devil in the Grove, this book reads like a first-rate crime thriller, built on shocking plot twists and vivid characters and evidence of the darkest corners of human nature. But it’s not fiction.
Late in the evening of Dec. 17, 1957, in the tiny town of Okahumpka, at the end of a week of freezing cold that threatened the citrus groves that were Lake County’s economic engine, a rape was reported. The victim was Blanche Knowles, wife of citrus baron Joe Knowles and mother of three young children. She had been assaulted in her home, her baby daughter asleep in a crib at the foot of her bed, while her husband was out of town.
The county’s deputies converged on the North Quarters, the town’s black neighborhood, as they received McCall’s orders: "Round up every n----- you see."
That was McCall’s standing order for most crimes, but in this case Blanche Knowles, who was white, had described her attacker as "a Negro ... with bushy hair." After the man raped her, she told a deputy, he had fallen down a flight of stairs and "busted out of the house through the back screen door." Shoe prints and a pair of men’s underwear were found in the yard.
The North Quarters were only a few blocks away from the Knowles estate, and deputies soon had most of the neighborhood’s male residents in custody. Their numbers were quickly whittled down to a couple of suspects, Melvin Hawkins Jr. and Sam Wiley Odom, both 18-year-old black men. Hawkins’ father, Melvin Sr., was a civil rights activist, "Florida’s most publicized integrationist," and newspapers nationwide were soon full of "inflammatory headlines" linking him to a rape suspect.
Both suspects’ families were terrified for them, and for good reason. "Between 1882 and 1930," King writes, "Florida had the highest per capita lynching rate of any state in the nation." Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, Florida’s governor from 1905 to 1909, proposed that the state’s black residents should be deported "to protect the white man from his own temper."
In rural Florida in the 1950s, not much had changed, with the Ku Klux Klan a very visible force in Lake County. During the Groveland case just a few years before that King wrote about in Devil in the Grove, Klansmen drove black residents into the swamps and burned their homes to the ground in an attempt to lynch black suspects in a rape case.
Given that atmosphere and Blanche Knowles’ description of her attacker, all of Lake County was agog when McCall announced the arrest of Jesse Daniels.
At age 19, Daniels had the mentality of a small child. It had taken him four years to pass the third grade, and he had dropped out of school a few years later. The only child of a disabled-veteran father and hard-working mother, Jesse did field work to help support his family, although he couldn’t count the coins he was paid. Cheerful and friendly, he rode a bike around town and slept with a teddy bear.
And Jesse Daniels was white.
King’s account of Daniels’ descent into the legal process is shocking and sickening. Accused of raping Knowles, he never stood trial but, in a five-minute hearing, was committed indefinitely to the Florida State Hospital at Chattahoochee.
It’s hard to overstate how heinous was the reputation of that Panhandle institution, the state’s main mental asylum, where in the 1950s favored treatments included induced insulin comas, electroconvulsive therapy and lobotomies. Patients often waited for years to be seen by a doctor, enduring squalid living conditions and frequent violence.
Jesse Daniels would be held there, without a trial, for 14 years.
Even when Sam Wiley Odom, one of the original suspects in the Knowles case, was convicted of a similar rape and confessed involvement in the assault on Knowles, nothing changed for Jesse Daniels, although Odom was executed, since rape was then a capital crime. Even when rumor arose of a hidden reason for the Knowles attack, nothing changed for Jesse Daniels. Using countless documents and remarkable interviews, King reveals why that happened and how Daniels was eventually freed.
In Devil in the Grove, the hero of the story was Thurgood Marshall, then attorney for the NAACP and later the first African-American U.S. Supreme Court Justice.
Battling the same villain, McCall, in Beneath a Ruthless Sun are two women: Jesse Daniels’ indomitable mother, Pearl, and a fearless journalist named Mabel Norris Reese.
Caring for her disabled husband and eking out a sparse living, Pearl Daniels never gave up on her boy, writing hundreds of letters to everyone she could think of, including Gov. LeRoy Collins and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, and riding a bus for hours every month to visit Jesse in Chattahoochee.
She joined forces with Reese, who with her husband published the weekly Mount Dora Topic. Reese had been McCall’s nemesis for years, but this case brought their conflict to new levels: A cross was burned at the Reeses’ home, the newspaper’s office was vandalized, and eventually it went out of business. But she persisted, taking a job at a newspaper in Daytona and continuing to cover McCall while aiding Pearl Daniels in every way she could.
Into the story of Jesse Daniels, King weaves many other examples of the racism that pervaded Florida in the mid 20th century. He recounts the experiences of the Platt family, who were of Irish and Native American heritage. McCall ordered their five children kicked out of school in Mount Dora because they "smelled" black; eventually the sheriff harassed them out of town. King also tells the heartbreaking tale of Virgil Hawkins Jr., brother of Melvin Hawkins Sr. and the first black man to attempt to attend the University of Florida’s segregated law school.
There is hope as well, others in the story who find the courage to do the right thing, like Noel "Evvie" Griffin, one of McCall’s deputies, who finally helped to bring injustices into the light. (Griffin died Monday at 89.)
Beneath a Ruthless Sun reveals a story that is horrifying to read but must be remembered. Willis McCall is dead, but the racism he embodied isn’t. Jesse Daniels is still alive. This extraordinary book’s story might have begun more than half a century ago, but it isn’t history.
Contact Colette Bancroft at firstname.lastname@example.org
or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.