In 1949, a 17-year old white woman didn’t come home one night. The next day, she and her husband said she had been raped by four black men. Two of the men had helped the couple when they were stranded in their car. Two more were nowhere near the scene of the alleged crime-one was being arrested miles away. But that didn’t matter. The accusation of black hands sullying white maidenhood was enough to whip white Southerners in a frenzy. Only three of the accused made it to trial-one had already been lynched. The local, cartoonishly evil sheriff, with strong ties to the Klan and the gambling industry, “lawfully killed” two of them during an attempted “escape”. One survived by playing dead. As he was swamped preparing to argue Brown v. Board of Education, NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall decided to take their case.
I didn’t know a lot about Thurgood Marshall’s legal career before his appointment to the Supreme Court. The biography I read tended to treat his criminal cases as footnotes. As a result, it glossed over some of the more powerful aspects of his personality. He was talented enough to win 29 of his 33 cases before the Supreme Court, eloquent enough to raise thousands of dollars for Legal Defense funds, and personable enough to have drinks in white-only southern bars. He was a beacon of hope, especially for poor black Southerners, a sign that they might actually have a chance to win in a trial. Supporters would stand watch over him, guarding him from the members of the KKK who wanted to scare him out of town. But Marshall would never back down, although as soon as the case was over, he would run out of town, with KKK assholes on his tail. On one occasion, Marshall was actually arrested on a bogus charge, and nearly driven by police car to his own lynching. Only the quick thinking of his friends saved his life.
Not only was Thurgood Marshall smart, he was persistent. Marshall used these cases of blatant racial injustice to play the long game. He wanted these men to be free, yes. But more importantly, he wanted to keep them alive long enough to appeal their cases all the way to the Supreme Court, the only place where they might have a chance.
But this book isn’t just about Marshall or the Groveland boys. It’s about the innumerable crimes that were inflicted upon black Americans while white justice turned a blind eye. In addition to the Groveland case, Gilbert King studies dozens of similar cases in the South, along with the racially motivated murders and rapes committed by white people, putting to rest the bullshit argument I hear sometimes by white people with Confederate bumper stickers that it was Northern agitators who ruined peaceful Southern racial relations.
I consider myself to be a pretty big fan of history. And yet, every time I read about the Jim Crow South, I’m shocked with how little I learned in school. The Devil in the Grove is an infuriating, page-turning eye-opener. Meticulously researched, this book studies at a tragically overlooked case, replete with a lying accuser, corrupt cops and lawyers, a bloodthirsty town and the lawyers who showed grace and calm in their search for justice. This book should be read by anyone with an interest in the history of civil rights.