Winning a Pulitzer Prize may change your life, but it didn’t stop Gilbert King from finishing the round of golf he was playing.
“A friend texted me, ‘Dude, Pulitzer,’ and I thought it was some joke,” King told a gathering of Niskayuna High School students at the school’s auditorium Monday morning. “I started getting all these calls, but my friend wouldn’t let me quit. ‘You’re finishing this round,’ he told me. Then I said, ‘Hey, it’s the New York Times. I gotta take this one.’ ”
It was last April when King, while playing golf, learned that he had won the Pulitzer for his book, “Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, The Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America.” Since then, he’s been a highly sought speaker all over the country, but Monday morning at Niskayuna was something special. He graduated from the school in 1980 and his mother still lives in the neighborhood where King grew up, just across Balltown Road from the high school. He thoroughly enjoyed Monday’s experience and was thrilled that so many students seemed interested and excited by their interaction with a Pulitzer Prize winner.
King conceded a similar situation probably wouldn’t have interested him when he was in high school.
“Yeah, I would have checked out mentally of something like this back then,” he said. “But everybody seemed to be paying attention and that was nice. They asked a lot of questions, and some were very passionate and I love that. I was shocked. I can’t believe how much time I let pass in high school without paying attention to anything.”
His book is not a biography of Marshall, but instead focuses on the plight of four black men who were falsely accused of raping a white woman in 1949 in Florida. Marshall, who later went on to a long career on the U.S. Supreme Court, defended the men as special counsel of the NAACP, and after numerous appeals the case was tried by the U.S. Supreme Court, which overturned the guilty verdict. The acquittal created a wave of violence in the South that included death threats against Marshall’s life.
“I’m not an academic, so I really had to learn about that time period in the South,” said King. “I probably have 40 to 50 books on my bookshelf about that time in the South. My opinion of Marshall has only grown since I did all the research, and I learned some things that really shocked me.”
Such as the “work-or-fight” laws he writes about in the book that were still the law of the land in the South after World War II.
“These laws allowed a sheriff to pick up any guy on the street and say, ‘Hey, you’re not in the Army, you’re not at work today, get in jail,’ ” said King. “They didn’t do this to white people. They did it to African-Americans after World War II. They’d throw them in jail and the sheriff would call up the orange groves and say, ‘Hey, we got eight bodies for you today,’ and the sheriff got to keep the fines. These guys would go and work in the orange groves all day and a sheriff would keep the money from their fines. He was incentivized to do this. That sort of injustice shocked me.”
King didn’t expect his book to be a big seller, but even he was disappointed with the initial reception for “Devil in the Grove.”
“They had so many in inventory they were going to start destroying them,” said King. “Before the Pulitzer nobody seemed interested. I knew the numbers were not going to be good because it’s a book about African-American history. It was hard getting it reviewed, but the reviews I did get were good and the response I got from people who had read it was good. The question was how do you get people to pay attention to it.”
That all changed when the book won the Pulitzer.
“Now it’s in its sixth printing and I get offers to speak all over the country,” said King. “You do get a bounce from the Pulitzer, but sometimes it’s not that much in the nonfiction category. But I got a good bounce, and now the sales have been steady, I think because it was story-driven. It’s not a biography. It’s about an event that happened, and that helps.”
King, who lives in Manhattan with his wife and their two teenage daughters, confirmed that winning the Pulitzer does change your life.
“Yes, it changed my life, and it’s going to help me be able to write another book,” he said. “That’s the important thing. That’s what I love to do.”
King started working on “Devil in the Grove” in 2008 while he was still working as a full-time, freelance photographer.
“Near the very end, and only because I was on such a deadline, I stopped my photography work,” said King. “I really didn’t have a choice, and I paid a price for it. Money stopped coming in, and I’m thinking I’m working on a book that really isn’t going to make any money. And I felt like I was working all the time. I put the girls to bed at 9 and I’d work on the book until 1 in the morning.”
King said things will be easier this time around.
“It is hard finding a good idea and I have had some false starts,” he said. “I’d start out on a project and the story just didn’t go where I thought it was going. I just want to make sure I don’t work on something outside my interest area. I don’t feel any pressure and if it is, it’s self-imposed, but I am drawn to the underdog story, and I really do like the crime element and telling stories through that crime.”
King called himself the “quintessential jock” in high school. He played baseball at Niskayuna and went out for the team at the University of Southern Florida. “I knew I was in over my head,” he said. “I figured out I better start studying more.”
After almost graduating from USF (he was short two math credits), King headed back to New York and began working as a photographer in New York City. Eventually he began writing his own text for some coffee table books he had photographed, and also started working as a ghost writer, producing about a dozen books.
Then, in 2009 under his own name, he produced “The Execution of Willie Francis,” a book that also dealt with racism within the American justice system and the botched execution of a 16-year-old black male.
Along with working on his next book, King’s other goal is to return to the University of Southern Florida and finish his education, even though he did receive a degree from Excelsior College in Albany in 1985.
“Right now I’m a few math credits short, but my mother is a genius,” said King. “She applied to Excelsior College for me and they didn’t care about the math credits so I do have a bachelor’s degree. But I don’t have it from the school I went to, and so I’m going to see if that’s something I can take care of.”