Before the moment, King hadn’t even known that his book was in the race. He didn’t know then that his account of four African American men, who were falsely accused of a crime against a white woman in Florida in 1949, would be featured in the top books of 2013. He wouldn’t have imagined that his book would be in line soon to be adapted into a Hollywood film.
King received the Pulitzer in the non-fiction category for his book Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America. The book is a well researched history of civil rights case of a former associate justice in the American Supreme court, Thurgood Marshall or as King calls him ‘Mr Civil Rights’, who fought in favour of four African American men, who were accused of raping a white woman. The case led to the Ku Klux Klan waging havoc on the town of Lake County in Florida. Burning African American houses and lynching black men followed.
Marshall was even threatened and one of his associates were killed. King’s book brought to light numerous details of the case with his research on the FBI files and other valuable materials.
Gilbert King is a part of a panel discussion in 2015’s Jaipur Literature festival and he was in the national capital one bright Sunday to interact with school students. He talked about his love for writing and photography and why he chooses to write about injustice and his views about other pressing issues in the world.
On Civil Rights
History of slavery goes a long way in America and so after Abraham Lincoln the general perception was that the African community was better off now. But there was still segregation and a lot of racism. Around the time of the second world war, suddenly the African American community was deemed ‘equal’ and good enough to be sent to war. They travelled to different parts of the world where they were respected as American soldiers. They fought as equals with passion for their country. So once the war was over, and when they came back to America, they were again pushed back into living in ghettos and as second class citizens.
This time they revolted and this resulted into the Klu Klux Klan lynching soldiers and other acts of violence. The county they fought for wasn’t protecting them. There was no society, no police to protect them. And this is when they turned to law. Thurgood Marshall rose as a leader and protector of civil rights then.
My book is one of the many cases that remained untold. People didn’t know of all the horrific incidents that took place and writing this book was a matter of conscience for me. It was a crucial case at that time and Marshall rose as a hero. My book is a tribute to a hero.
On Racial progress today
The Internet and camera phones has made it easier to tell stories. For instance something like the Ferguson unrest would not have become this popular had it not been for the Internet, which has brought it to a higher level of consciousness for people. It has drawn attention.
While I was researching for Devil in the Grove, I used to wonder how the world would have reacted if an injustice like this would have been covered on camera. But look at Ferguson case, look at Eric Garner, an African American, who was choked to death by a police officer. A video was recorded and it went viral. But police brutality is somehow justified in our society.
Today, we may feel good that we have Barack Obama as the President of the United States but the issue of racial injustice is as crucial as it was then. But having said that, I think the situation has improved a lot. People may point out at the Ferguson incident or the Trevor Martin incident (17 year old African American who was shot by a neighbourhood watch volunteer). To say that the situation is the same is unfair to the leaders who fought for their rights. Back then no one would know about it. Today everyone recognises the issue and that is a victory in itself. You get to the court room today and at least there is a trial.
I was always drawn to underdog stories. I used to read books like the Count of Monte Cristo and I was always interested in crime stories. As a photographer I love the idea of learning new things like a child would see. The enthusiasm came to me as a writer as well to learn and tell stories. Suddenly I was seeing new things, things I had never heard before. My writing is a way to tell people what I am thinking in my head, like a photograph should.
As a student I was always distracted. My grades weren’t good and my teachers used to complain that I read other things than the class assigned books. I went about my way and ended up becoming who I am.
To aspiring writers I would say, read. And read history. Make yourself comfortable with the structure of a story. Be it writing a book or just journalism, people want to know the human narrative, the experience. One needs to understand that the best stories are about people and not about events. They are not about banks, they are about people in the banks.
My impression about Indians is that there is a certain joy in people, a certain sensitivity. This is my first trip to India but I have found that people appreciate life in a different way than America. Conversations revolve around families, about reflection on life, simple things unlike the fast paced conversation that I see in America. I think Indians in general and Indian writers observe things in details.
I attended the Jaipur literature festival to listen to writers like V S Naipaul. My idea of Indian literature is that it is vast. There are so many Indian books I want to read and there are so many writers who inspired me during the festival. There is so much I take back from here, that a book on India cannot be ruled out.
As far as the festival itself is concerned, I believe as writers we are always at our desks. We don’t interact, I don’t teach, so I am always researching and writing and it’s kind of lonely.
Such festivals make me meet people I love. People I love reading and for me it’s also about appreciating the fact that ‘Oh my God, I am on the same panel with such renouned writers’.