Yoknapatawpha County, created by author William Faulkner, was the backdrop for many tales of race and injustice spiced by the hypocrisy of the whites who exploited, abused and sometimes killed their black brothers.
But nothing springing from Faulkner’s imagination can compare to Lake County, Fla., when Sheriff Willis McCall ruled it from 1946 to 1972. Gilbert King has chronicled McCall’s reign of terror in two nonfiction books: 2012’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Devil in the Grove and the recently published Beneath a Ruthless Sun.
Both books deal with rapes of white women allegedly by black men, the greatest sin to too many in the Jim Crow South. Devil tells the story of how four young blacks were falsely accused of raping a young, poor white in the late 1940s. It is fascinating and shocking. McCall killed two of the suspects and may have had a hand in the death of a third.
It’s King’s new book, though, that reveals how twisted the ideology of white supremacy is and how injustice to one minority can easily justify injustice to all minorities. That includes people with intellectual disabilities, called retarded in the time the book is set (1950s through early ’70s).
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On Dec. 18, 1957, Blanche Knowles was raped by a black man. For five days, young Lake County black males were brutally questioned by McCall and his deputies. But in the end, Jesse Daniels was charged.
Daniels was a poor white teen with an IQ of 65 who had no inkling what sex was and far too gentle to commit a violent act.
But Knowles was the wife of wealthy orange grower and it would have shamed them both if it was known a black man had in any way touched her sexually. However, being raped by a poor white man carried no dishonor. Where’s the logic in that?
Daniels’ court-appointed lawyer, serving Lake County’s elites, pleaded insanity as a defense in a sham hearing and Daniels was committed to a mental asylum, where he was sexually and otherwise abused.
In a just society, being black, brown, female, disabled or a member of any other demographic does not cause you to be barred from places or jobs, to be publicly insulted, to be killed.
It is not playing the victim to say that. Modern-day white supremacists have playing the victim down pat.
When we who are disabled see our black and brown brothers and sisters mocked, beaten or worse, indifference is not an option nor is empathy a cause of pride. If they can be unjust to others, than can be unjust to us. Solidarity is self-preservation.
But we cannot hate or lose hope — even justice is never perfect.
McCall was never convicted of anything. He did finally lose office. Jesse Daniel’s fate is equally ambiguous. Blanche Knowles, who never said Jesse did it, never said he didn’t. She did become a special education teacher.
David P. Rundle is a Wichita freelance journalist.