Black History Month: Review of “Devil in the Grove” by Gilbert King

This masterful and riveting non-fiction book, subtitled “Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America” is about some of the bravest men in the history of this country. It is a useful corrective to anyone who thought (from reading The Help, for instance) that Jim Crow America wasn’t so bad. Or worse, those who thought that what was described in The Help was as bad as it got.

Gilbert King, who has written about U.S. Supreme Court history for both The Washington Post and The New York Times, argues that by the mid-1940’s, Thurgood Marshall, the grandson of a mixed-race slave, “was engineering the greatest social transformation in American since the Reconstruction era.” With a rhetorical facility (“benighted towns billeting hostile prosecutors”) that transcends the sobering subject matter, King allows you to forget you are reading non-fiction, but he never allows you to forget you are reading a genuine horror story.

Thurgood Marshall and his colleagues in the Legal Defense Fund of the NAACP traveled throughout the South in the 1950’s, trying to fight white supremacy using the weapon of the Constitution. Marshall knew he could not win cases at the local or state level, so his goal became to establish firm grounds for appeals on record. If favorable rulings on equal protection could be obtained in higher courts, these precedents could then be used as additional building blocks for the rights of blacks.

The story of Marshall’s battle is told by a focus on one particular case, that of the Groveland Boys, which was, according to King:

“…key to Marshall’s perception of himself as a crusader for civil rights, as a lawyer, willing to stand up to racist judges and prosecutors, murderous law enforcement officials, and the Klan in order to save the lives of young men falsely accused of capital crimes – even if it nearly killed him.”

And he was nearly killed a number of times.

Thurgood Marshall as a young man

The case of the Groveland Boys made national news at the time, and also had a significant impact upon the NAACP’s goals for future litigation. It took place in Florida, a state that somehow escaped the bad reputation attributed to Mississippi, Georgia, or Louisiana even though it had a higher per capital lynching rate. King notes:

“In the postwar decade Florida would…prove to be a state with a boundless capacity for racial inhumanity, even by measure of the rest of the South…”

In Groveland, the Klan was populated by lawmen, and blacks had no hope of protection. So it was that when four young black men were arrested for the rape of a young white girl, in spite of the fact that no semen was found in her, or that two of the boys weren’t even in the area that night, a conviction and death penalty for all four boys was a foregone conclusion. Two of the young men were in the area, and they were World War II veterans, the object of particular rancor among white southerners since these veterans no longer were acting subservient enough.

The book describes the horrific events that surrounded this case, including the beatings of suspects and murder of three of them by the sheriff, who managed to remain in office until 1972 when he was finally suspended for kicking to death a mentally retarded black prisoner in his cell; the personal risks with their lives taken by all the defense lawyers; and the jaw-dropping injustice in the courtroom. It also enumerates the pressures on Marshall, who was simultaneously working on arguments for Brown v. Board of Education to be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. While desperate stays-of-execution were filed in the Groveland Case, Marshall was forced to respond to the Supreme Court’s order that all five of the segregation cases coalesced into Brown v. Board had to be reargued in terms of the statutory intent of the equal protection clause in the Fourteenth Amendment.

It’s an amazing story, and my respect for Marshall increased tremendously as a result of it.

Evaluation: This is a book that should be required reading. This horrifying, edge-of-your-seat tale really happened, and not that long ago. Its repercussions helped make the country what it is today. The author, who unearthed FBI files under seal for sixty years, has done an outstanding job in telling this story which manages to be heart-breaking, inspiring, infuriating, and admirable all at once.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2012

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18 Responses to Black History Month: Review of “Devil in the Grove” by Gilbert King

  1. Sandy says:

    I’m definitely going to have to get my hands on this one. It is really true crime at its most horrifying. The fact that it took place in my state (no shocker really…we have got all the freak shows down here) even makes it more important that we know this history. I was actually just sitting here reading your review to my son. Sounds like the kind of book that I’d have to quote to everyone until I drove them crazy.

  2. Julie P. says:

    Darn it! I didn’t accept this one and now I’m so regretting it! Your review is fantastic!

  3. zibilee says:

    I know a little about Marshall, but it sounds like this book would give me a whole lot more information on him, and the causes he fought for. It does indeed sound like a chilling story, and I had no idea that Florida was such a hotbed of racial prejudice, though as Sandy says, it’s not hard to believe. I loved this review, and will have to see if I can find this book. It sounds like a gripping read.

  4. lol The Help…..

    just written this title down in my “list of books to look into more closely”

  5. Barbara says:

    I don’t know nearly enough about Thurgood Marshall and so I will definitely look for this book to correct that deficiency in my history knowledge.

  6. JoAnn says:

    You had me by the end of the first paragraph! I’ll keep an eye on my library’s new books and get on the list for this one right away.

  7. Wow! When I see books like this, I wonder why those stories aren’t more widely told.

  8. I don’t read a lot of non-fiction, but this one sounds really good. Thanks for the review.

  9. Richard says:

    Are you the same Jill who’s always accusing me of reading depressing fiction? Whatever, this sounds like a powerful non-fiction work all the same. Thanks for the tip–the book sounds quite good, and these sorts of “history lessons” are always important to keep in mind.

  10. So getting this one — thanks for your review. Your urging it as required reading is what moved me — never forgetting is so crucial!

  11. Amy says:

    Wow, what a powerful book. Marshall was an amazingingly impressive man and I’ve always wanted to read more about him. I was thinking biography but this sounds much better although horrifying in parts. Somehow it never ceases to amaze how awful human beings can be towards each other.

    I love the great variety of books you read :o)

  12. Staci@LifeintheThumb says:

    I absolutely agree with you that it should be required reading. I have read a few books that really sickened me but I knew that I had to continue on because it was TRUE! Excellent review!

  13. Jenny says:

    Wow I was completely engrossed in your review.. this is definitely a book I am interested in reading. It is definitely a true horror story. Fantastic review!!

  14. Jenners says:

    It makes you wonder what other horrors are to be found in sealed files.

  15. Trish says:

    I think that The Help is unfairly judged. But I’ll shut my mouth on that subject. 😉

    So this one isn’t quite out yet? Looks fantastic. I think one of the scariest things about Jim Crow and the atrocities that happened is that it didn’t occur that long ago. My generation might not remember but my parents’

    • Trish,
      I don’t think that the criticisms of The Help (that I have read, at any rate) really have to do with my point and I’m not criticizing The Help for it (or hope I didn’t sound like I was). I was just trying to say that I know a lot of people don’t know how bad it was in the South during the 50s, 60s, and 70s, and if their only info comes from The Help, this book would serve as an excellent corrective. But I in no way think that is the fault of The Help!

  16. Aarti says:

    Wow, this sounds amazing! You always find the BEST American history books! I am putting this straight on my wish list.

  17. amymckie says:

    I have this on my shelf to read as well, just started it and already it is proving eye-opening… and I like to think that I’ve worked to be more educated on the time and injustices too. Definitely should be read by many many more.

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