The New York Times by
April 25, 2018
As the popular sheriff of Lake County, Fla., between 1944 and 1972, Willis McCall seemed to embrace the hallmarks of ignominy: a penchant for brazen cruelty and an unyielding commitment to an unjust cause. Punching a wayward horse in the head, as he did on at least one occasion, was the least of it; McCall enforced Jim Crow with a brutality that made even his fellow segregationists blanch.
In “Beneath a Ruthless Sun: A True Story of Violence, Race, and Justice Lost and Found,” Gilbert King recounts how the sheriff descended on the cabin rendezvous of two interracial couples in 1956 and arrested them for violating Florida’s anti-miscegenation statute — but not before trying to enlist his deputies to help him throw the black men “to the alligators” and daring one of the men to run. (“I want to get in some target practice,” McCall said.) The F.B.I. investigated, and then withdrew. McCall was re-elected to his fourth term as sheriff, celebrated by those who praised him for what one supporter called his “efficiency and untiring efforts” in punishing “the ravages of Negroes upon white women and girls.”
This isn’t the main incident in the book, but it’s a telling one, if only because it reflects the many convolutions King pursues. As the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Devil in the Grove” (2012) and “The Execution of Willie Francis” (2008), King has written about racism and spectacular miscarriages of justice before. McCall was a central figure in “Devil in the Grove,” having participated in the zealous prosecution of four black men wrongly convicted of raping a 17-year-old white woman in 1949. After the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the convictions of two of the so-called Groveland Four, McCall shot the men, killing one of them.
At first glance, King’s new book looks like it will recount another one of McCall’s fervid campaigns to incarcerate a black man for a crime he didn’t necessarily commit. “Beneath a Ruthless Sun” begins in December 1957, when Blanche Bosanquet Knowles, the wife of a Lake County citrus baron, reported a rape. Her husband was out of town and she was at home, alone with their three children, when, she said, a “husky Negro” with “bushy hair” attacked her in the middle of the night. McCall told his deputies to round up every black man they could find. [READ MORE]
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