Pulitzer Prize winner Gilbert King took the stage in the Marshall Student Center Oval Theater on Monday night to tell a story of racial injustice in mid-century Florida through photographs.
King, who attended USF in the early 1980s, but fell two math credits short of a bachelor’s degree in English, won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction for his book “Devil In The Grove,” a story about four black men falsely accused of abducting and raping a white woman in Lake County in 1949.
In his introduction, Julian Newman, one of the lecture’s sponsors, recounted the existence of segregation in Tampa and credited USF as a key player in advancing the civil rights movement.
“USF was the thing that changed Tampa — not really intentionally,” Newman said, recalling a story of a black student who was refused service by a popular restaurant owner, sparking a boycott among students and staff at the
Newman also acknowledged USF as one of the first institutions to accept black students, preceding the University of Florida and Florida State.
“This institution was instrumental in the change in racial relations in Tampa … this is an institution that everyone should be very proud of,” he said.
Discussing his book, King explained it was important for him to share this case of racial injustice because it was lost in history, even among the residents of the community in which it occurred.
“Even though they lived through these things, they weren’t aware of this history,” he said.
King described a family that didn’t know its uncle was a victim in the case.
“It was a source of shame, sorrow and depression for the families and it was never brought up, so for (the families) it was a learning experience reading the book,” he said.
King showed photographs of Thurgood Marshall who was a lawyer at the time, battling segregation in the South. Marshall later became the first black assistant justice of the United States.
One photograph depicted 9 black men in military bunks during World War I. King explained that when these men returned from serving in the war, they were expected to fall back in line with Jim Crow, a system of laws enforcing segregation in the South.
Once home, they continued to wear their uniforms in retaliation against the injustices they were enduring. Because of this, many were lynched in uniform, leading Marshall to begin fighting in the South.
Through the lecture, King told the story of Marshall and his battle in Lake County following the rape accusation against four black men, three of whom ended up dead by the time Marshall and his colleagues won the case.
During the case, the Ku Klux Klan burned down black peoples’ homes and a violent uproar emerged in Groveland, causing the governor to send in the National Guard.
Many of the striking photographs King showed of burned down homes, lynchings and violence were documented by Life Magazine, but never made it into the
“Life Magazine ended up killing this story because there were a couple of other race stories that were happening at the same time and they didn’t want to beat America over the head with another racial violence story,” he said.
Because they were never published, this important moment in the civil rights movement went unknown for years until King gained access and brought to light the injustice that he said was pivotal in the civil rights movement.
At the time, King said, Florida was considered the “South of the South.”
“It wasn’t part of those cotton-belt states where all of those racial atrocities were happening, so that kind of environment kept Florida off the radar,” he said.