By REBECCA ISENHART
SCHENECTADY — Gilbert King writes nonfiction, but if he made up his stories, editors might say the racially charged tales of cold-blooded crime in the American South were too unbelievable to print.
King, who graduated from Niskayuna High School in 1980 and has since published two books, won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction for “Devil In the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America.”
In past interviews, King has said the initial reception to his book was so tepid that publishers considered destroying unsold copies. But once he won the Pulitzer for his writing, they took off.
On Tuesday evening in the Schenectady County Community College auditorium, King, a guest speaker invited in honor of Black History Month, commanded the attention of a small, but riveted audience of about 30 people. He told the story of Thurgood Marshall’s life before he became a Supreme Court justice.
“I have a little problem with ‘Black History’ … not the actual month or the actual idea, but the separation, as if this is a separate history,” King said as he began his presentation.
“One of the themes that I realized as I was writing this, is that this is American history. This is our history,” he continued. “Through the lens of a criminal story, you get to learn a lot about history and law in the United States just after World War II.”
King began by showing iconic images from the Jim Crow South before the Civil Rights movement: People drinking from different water fountains and using separate entrances to theaters and other buildings. But, he said, these images made it seem like discrimination was a mere inconvenience to African Americans. In fact, the reality he encountered during his research was far more brutal.
The historical events King chronicles echo the famous plot of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” but Lee’s account was fictional, while King’s is true.
A young woman, who is still alive today but declined to talk to King for his book, accused four African American boys of raping her, and the boys were wrongly convicted. Marshall, who was known for accepting terrifyingly violent cases and was nearly lynched by the Klu Klux Klan just before the one detailed in the book, took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The guilty verdicts for the accused were overturned, but personal violence and revenge followed, including an attempt at double murder by a Southern sheriff just before the case was to be retried.
After King spoke, he invited questions. Among the topics to come up was the controversial deaths of black men at the hands of vigilantes and law enforcement, including Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner.
King said the fact that the audience member knew about those cases and was outraged by them demonstrated the breadth of societal change. He used the Trayvon Martin case as an example.
“Here you have a young, dead African American and the suspect is not even really detained,” King said. “The difference now is that you saw the outrage that happened after that. People asked, ‘Why isn’t this going to be tested in court?’
“It wasn’t one police chief in a town that made the final decision,” King continued. “It was tested in a court of law.”
King praised Thurgood Marshall and his contemporaries for their roles in improving the justice system.
“I think it’s important that we recognize the contribution of these young African American lawyers,” King said.
“They really are the American dream. They were able to, on a level playing field, change laws.”
King said his book is in the process of being turned into a mainstream film. The script is finished and in the hands of Hollywood directors.
“The way it works at this stage is, they bring directors in who read the script and show interest. They present their vision of what their movie could be,” said King, who is acting as a consultant on the film while working on another book.
He’s not sure exactly how long the process will take or when the movie might be completed.
This story originally appeared in The Daily Gazette.