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10/22/12 - "Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America by Gilbert King" review by William Sturkey, Ph.D.

Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America

by Gilbert King

Review by: William Sturkey, Ph.D.

William Sturkey, Ph.D., was a 2012-2013 ARC post-doctoral fellow whose dissertation was entitled "The Heritage of Hub City: The Struggle for Opportunity in the New South".

Devil in the Grove Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America by Gilbert King

Eight years before arguing Brown v. Board and twenty-one years before becoming the first African American appointed to the Supreme Court, legendary Civil Rights attorney Thurgood Marshall was in the custody of a racist white Tennessee sheriff and about to be delivered to a lynch mob. Thankfully, an ally saved Marshall from the mob and helped him flee Tennessee where he had just successfully defended twenty-five local black men accused of attempted murder because they dared to defend their homes and families during a full-blown race riot earlier that year. That episode in Tennessee was just one of many terrifying moments Marshall encountered as he travelled through the South during the years prior to the Brown case, facing down racist white prosecutors and law enforcement officials in an epic postwar crusade against injustice.

In his new book Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America, Gilbert King takes readers to the swamps and orange groves of postwar Florida to tell a compelling story of racism, judicial injustice, and murder—all centered around the legendary Thurgood Marshall. The Groveland boys were four young black men wrongly accused of raping a young white woman in the summer 1949. The accusations were borderline absurd. There was no physical evidence in the case, and at least one of the accused was actually in police custody during the time of the alleged rape. Nonetheless, three black men were arrested for the alleged crime while one was chased, cornered, and then shot in cold blood as he fled an all-white sheriff’s posse.

The rape story quickly spread through the groves, galvanizing local Ku Klux Klansman and their allies who arrived at the jail intent on lynching the accused black males. After being turned away by local sheriff Willis McCall, the white supremacist mob launched a largescale attack against the local black community, forcing dozens of families to flee into the woods and others to leave the city forever. (The backstory of the attack is that some local black residents lived in better conditions than their working-class white counterparts. One family also ran a competing gambling ring.) Worried about his credibility among potential voters, Sherriff McCall then sets out to obtain confessions from the innocent men at any cost. One-by-one, he takes them into a basement, handcuffs them to an exposed ceiling pipe, and beats them with a rubber hose until they “confess” to the crime. Just weeks later, each of the boys are convicted by an all-white jury. Two are sentenced to death and one receives the “merciful” punishment of life in prison. Thanks in part to Florida NAACP leader Harry Moore, word of this injustice reaches the national NAACP office whose attorneys, including Marshall, decide to include the defense of the Groveland Boys as part of their multi-front war against Southern racial injustice. The bulk of this book is about the ensuing struggle, told within the context of Marshall and the NAACP’s ongoing fight against Southern Jim Crow that as we all know would eventually culminate with the 1954 Brown decision.

By the time readers reach the Groveland Boys’ conviction, we are well familiar with Marshall’s background, including the dramatic experiences he has had in fighting racial injustice in courts throughout the South, including the dramatic story of the near-lynching in Tennessee. The depiction of Marshall is one of the primary strengths of the book. King takes Marshall out of the courtroom at times, summarizing his early achievements and strategies, but also skillfully capturing his character. King uses oral histories, newspaper accounts, NAACP documents, and secondary sources to show us a folksy, pragmatic Thurgood Marshall. We see not just the lawyer, but the everyday man, a passionate activist who feared, argued, joked, and drank just like anyone else. We also get to see Marshall as a leader, understanding his strengths and faults through the eyes of his employers and underlings, especially the gifted young black lawyer Frank Williams who eventually argues the Groveland Four’s appeal in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. So often in Civil Rights literature, Marshall’s accomplishments overshadow his personality. It is hard to blame authors for that as he was one of the most influential and accomplished Americans of the twentieth century. But Gilbert King gives readers a unique, multi-layered view of “Mr. Civil Rights,” a man who is at once flawed, abrasive, charming, and remarkably courageous.

Devil in the Grove chronicles one of the hundreds of tragic stories that together compose the often-horrific nature of America’s racial narrative. It is certainly not the first book to detail the pre-Brown v. Board activities of Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP or even the first book to tell the story of the Groveland Boys. But I highly recommend this book because it does so in such a compelling way, with an iconic, unbending personality driving the narrative and connecting the story of the Groveland Boys to a bigger history of Southern racial violence and injustice and of those courageous men and women—both at the local level and in the national NAACP—who dared to fight it.

The narrative is a bit doglegged at times and meanders into several side stories and bits of information that may not interest casual readers. But it is also easy enough to forgive King because of the wealth of information he has packed into the book. His research is tremendous, and it must have been quite challenging to organize all the material into a single narrative. King is a talented writer who values a good first sentence (an underrated quality) and has a great eye for detail and organization. He also knows when to hold back, an elusive gift to most storytellers, but one that allows King to keep teaching us about Thurgood Marshall well into the book’s 300+ pages. Overall, Devil in the Grove is a well-told and engaging story, a page-turner that would be a welcome to any book club or classroom. Read the book if you don’t know much about Thurgood Marshall or the NAACP before the Browncase, if you don’t know much about race and the justice system during Jim Crow, or simply if you care about the legacy of racism in America and want to gain a better understanding of the nightmarish realities facing poor Southern black families on the eve of America’s most mythically idyllic decade. It is an excellent book.