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Sunday, 10 October 2021

The Small Town Editor Who Stood Up to the Ku Klux Klan, and Her Bust with the Typewriter Key

On a weekend when two courageous journalists shared the Nobel Peace Prize, it seems timely to salute one of the bravest American journalists ever, Mabel Evelyn Norris. The Nobel Prize went to Philippines journalist and Rapler co-founder Maria Ressa and to Russian Dmitry Muratov for their “courageous” defence of freedom of speech and expression. Australian foreign correspondent Peter Greste paid tribute to Ressa in particular, saying she was “one of the toughest and most courageous people I’ve ever come across. She has taken a sustained kicking for such a long time.” But no more sustained nor more serious than the kicking the Ku Klux Klan and a rotten-to-the-core local sheriff handed out to Florida journalist Norris from 1949 until 1958.

In January last year a bust of Mabel wearing a typewriter key was unveiled in Mount Dora, Lake County, Florida. It was the work of artist Jim McNalis, who said of Mabel, “She is among those people who stand for a principle that they consider more important that their own well-being. Here was a woman standing alone exposing a murderous sheriff in a community that wasn’t necessarily behind her. [The Ku Klux Klan] burned a cross on her front lawn, they bombed her house, they murdered her dog, dumped dead fish on her front porch and she wrote an editorial about that and she said, ‘If the Ku Klux Klan thinks this is gonna drive me off, they’ve got the wrong lady.’ That’s amazing. That’s a person we should know about.”  McNalis described Mabel as a woman who demonstrated courage and integrity.

Norris, perhaps better known by her earlier married name, Mabel Reese, was a civil rights activist and editor and owner of the Mount Dora Topic weekly newspaper. McNalis’s bust incorporates on a brooch the typewriter key, MR, that represents her initials, but is in fact the margin release key from her Royal standard. The terracotta sculpture represents some long-overdue recognition of Mabel’s incredible and gutsy achievements.

Mabel fought for justice on many fronts, but she is especially remembered for her stand on the treatment of the so-called “Groveland Four”, who were not pardoned until January 2019, a year before Mabel’s bust was unveiled. At age 80, Mabel died, as Mabel Norris Chesley, of cancer in Daytona Beach on New Year’s Eve 1994, so these tributes came a quarter of a century too late for her to share in the sense of deserved justification for her efforts. Unlike Ressa and Muratov, her incredible journalistic courage was barely acknowledged during her lifetime. The best that Mabel received was a Pulitzer Prize nomination for her stories about racial discrimination against the Platt family in 1954. That campaign also won Mabel the first Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award for courage in journalism, presented on July 16, 1956, at Carbondale, Illinois, during the National Conference of Weekly Newspaper Editors.

Mabel, second from left, with fellow editors during the 1956 conference of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors.

Mabel was born on July 2, 1914, at Pomeroy, Meigs County, 21 miles south of Athens in Ohio. She graduated from Doylestown High School in Pennsylvania and as a teenager began her journalism career with the Akron Times-Press. At age 21 she joined the Beacon Journal in Akron and remained there until 1941. In November 1938 she married a Beacon Journal typesetter and printer, Paul Henderson Reese. The couple bought the Mount Dora Topic in 1947, little realising what havoc and hardships lay ahead of them. But Mabel’s total commitment to publishing the truth and nothing but the truth soon put her at odds with racist locals, most especially the evil Lake County Sheriff Willis Virgil McCall (1909-1994), who, to the eternal shame of this community, continued to be elected for seven consecutive terms, from 1944 to 1972, despite being investigated 49 times. But Lake County eventually woke up, and in 2007 the county commission voted unanimously to change a road named in his honour in 1985 because of his history as a “bully lawman whose notorious tenure was marked by charges of racial intolerance, brutality and murder”.

LIFE magazine, November 17, 1972

Mabel found racism rife in Lake County. She had railed against segregation since an experience she had in 1936, while working for the Beacon Journal. She accompanied 13-year-old MacNolia Cox, Akron’s first African-American spelling bee champion, and MacNolia’s mother Albertia, to the national finals in Washington DC. MacNolia was segregated on the rail trip, on elevators, and at a banquet. “This is how bad it used to be,” Mabel recalled in 1971. At the end of 1960, Mabel, as president of the Lake County Press Association, endorsed the words, “seek the truth, print it fearlessly, and you will have lived up to the expectation of the American people”. All, that is, except Willis McCall.

The ruthless, racist ratbag sherrif.

Mabel was initially prepared to unquestioningly accept McCall’s word. But in November 1951, McCall, while transporting two of the “Groveland Four” from Raiford State Prison to the county seat of Tavares for a new trial, shot both prisoners outside Umatilla while they were handcuffed together, without provocation, killing one. After Mabel started to doubt McCall’s claims of self-defence, her dog was poisoned, her house was firebombed twice and a cross was burned on her lawn. Red-neck racists painted “KKK” on the front of her vandalised newspaper office. McCall denounced her as a liar and a communist.

The Platt family

On Christmas night 1951, Harry Tyson Moore, executive director of the Florida branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and his wife Harriette were killed when a bomb exploded under their bedroom in Mims in Brevard County. The bomb was planted by Ku Klux Klan officers in the Orange County Klavern. Moore wanted McCall charged with murder and sought his suspension. Harriette was an educator and civil rights worker. In 1954 McCall declared five Platt family children as African-Americans and had them banned from a segregated white public school in Mount Dora. The Platts were Irish-Croatan Native Americans. Mabel set out to right this wrong, and in October 1955, a court ruled the children could attend the public school, but the family had already moved from Florida. Mabel also called for the exoneration of an 18-year-old white youth, Jesse Daniels, who was incarcerated in 1957 for the alleged rape of a white society matron. It was found McCall had locked away for 14 years the mentally disabled Daniels because it was “nicer” for the victim to have been raped by a white man than an African-American!

The entirely innocent Jesse Daniels and his mother.

Mabel left the Topic in 1958 and went to work for the Daytona Beach News-Journal, where she remained for 20 years as a reporter and associate editor. She and Paul Reese divorced in 1962 and Mabel married Harrison Webster Chesley later that same year.

Mabel’s name remains associated with the “Groveland Four” case, the wrongful conviction of four young African-American men and summary execution of two of them by police. On July 16, 1949, Norma Padgett, a 17-year-old married white woman in Groveland, Florida, alleged without evidence that she had been raped by four young African-American men. Charles L. Greenlee, 16, the husband of a pregnant wife, and Sam Shepherd, 22, and Walter Lee Irvin, also 22, both ex-servicemen, were arrested. Ernest Thomas, also a married man, fled the county but a sheriff's 1000-man posse shot and killed him while he was asleep, on July 26, about 200 miles north-west, in Madison County. A coroner's inquest was unable to determine who had killed Thomas, as he was shot some 400 times.

All four were posthumously exonerated on April 18, 2017, by a resolution of the Florida House of Representatives. The Florida Senate quickly passed a similar resolution; lawmakers called on Governor Rick Scott to officially pardon the men. On January 11, 2019, the Florida Board of Executive Clemency voted to pardon the Groveland Four. Newly elected Governor Ron DeSantis subsequently did so.

Mabel once said, “I believe in journalists becoming advocates. If reporters won’t go out and investigate abuses, fight for causes, who will?” A colleague said Mabel was “a very fierce reporter in the face of physical and mental intimidation.” Do they award posthumous Nobels?