Niskayuna graduate wins Pulitzer Prize
'Devil in the Grove'
CAPITAL REGION At the tail end of the 1970s, Gilbert King would run around the Niskayuna High School football field on game days, perfecting his passes.
He wasn’t a Niskayuna Silver Warrior, nor did he want to be. He just wanted to put himself in the cleats of one in order to lend credence and first-person imagery to his stories in the school newspaper, The Warrior.
“I used to do these George Plimpton-like stories where I would dress up in all their gear and practice with them so I could write from the perspective as a real player on the team,” said King, chuckling as he recalled his young ambitions decades later.
King always knew he would be a writer. He didn’t know, however, that his efforts to tell a vivid story would one day win him a Pulitzer Prize. On Monday, the 1980 Niskayuna graduate was awarded a 2013 Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction for his book, “Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America,” which harkened back to Marshall’s involvement in a 1948 case where four black men were falsely accused of raping a white girl in Lake County, Fla.
The news took King completely by surprise. Not only had he not known he was nominated for the prestigious literary award, but he was fairly convinced the book published by Harper one year earlier had pretty much flown under the radar.
“It got some nice reviews, but it’s African-American history,” said King, his gravelly voice a suitable companion for his graying hair. “There’s a smaller commercial demand for it. It’s not something that really jumps off the bookshelves or something you want to take to the beach. It’s a violent, pre-Civil Rights era story that, frankly, makes people a little uncomfortable.”
As described by officials on the Pulitzer Prize website, King’s book is a “richly detailed chronicle of racial injustice in the Florida town of Groveland in 1949, involving four black men falsely accused of rape and drawing a civil rights crusader, and eventual Supreme Court justice, into the legal battle.”
The 51-year-old writer lives in New York City with his wife and two teenage daughters and said he spent his years after Niskayuna thinking he would be a baseball player.
His brief stint playing for the University of South Florida was a rude awakening, however, he joked.
“I thought, well, I better start studying,” he said.
But after a few years studying English, he dropped out of college two math credits short of a degree and moved to New York City, where he worked as a photographer for various magazines.
His mother, who lives in the same house he grew up in on Via Del Mar, still urges him to get those final credits.
King, who wrote about U.S. Supreme Court history for the New York Times and Washington Post, has also had another book published — “The Execution of Willie Francis: Race, Murder and the Search for Justice in the American South.”
For “Devil in the Grove,” King relied on stacks of never-before-published material, including unredacted case files from the FBI and wide access to the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund files, to piece together his harrowing — and true — narrative.
“This story to me is extremely uplifting,” he said, “but it’s sort of like childbirth. You really have to go through some pretty horrible stuff, but I think you do emerge with a tremendous picture of people like Thurgood Marshall and NAACP lawyers who really put their lives on the line to change the justice system.”
Looking back on his high school days, he recalls being inspired by his English teacher, T.A. Subramanian, now retired.
“I was not the greatest student in the world,” he said. “I don’t think he thought much of my talent or aptitude as a student, but he was very patient with me, and I remember that I enjoyed his class and I liked reading his books.”
This year’s group of Pulitzer winners includes another Capital Region native.
Washington Post chief art critic Philip Kennicott was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism for “his eloquent and passionate essays on art and the social forces that underlie it, a critic who always strives to make his topics and targets relevant to readers,” according to the Pulitzer website.
Kennicott graduated from Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake High School in 1984, according to district officials. He could not be reached Wednesday.
On the very day the awards were announced, two bombs were detonated near the finish line of the Boston Marathon.
Kennicott wrote on his blog that it was “a wonder to see the newsroom with all hands on deck, to see it do what it does best.
“Art critics survive in newspapers not because we help the bottom line, but because enlightened editors and publishers see art as an essential part of the picture of the world that newspapers deliver every day.”
He went on to write that art is essential to the world’s survival.
“That fact, that necessity, isn’t universally acknowledged, as the events in Boston give sad witness,” he wrote. “Creation is the opposite of destruction.”