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Devil in the Grove – Book Review

devilinthegroveBy: Gilbert King

Publisher: Harper Perennial, HarperCollins Publishers

Copyright: 2012, ISBN: [0061792226]

Cover: Robin Bilardello, State Archives of Florida

Reviewed by: Lynard Barnes, June 13, 2013


Summary:  Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America. A snippet in the life of Thurgood Marshall as head of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund and the dismantling of segregation laws in the United States.


You cannot read this book without thinking of Harper Lee’s, To Kill a Mocking Bird, published in 1960.  Lee’s work was fiction essentially detailing the extremes to which irrational fears can drive people. It employs the view of a child to show how society has erected boundaries in an attempt to control and defeat those irrational fears. King’s DEVIL IN THE GROVE is history, detailing the same irrational fears and attempts at implementation of boundaries to control it.  King’s book also makes you pause to consider current events.  The media frenzied discussions about privacy and the threat of privacy invasion by the government is an issue about boundaries—justifiable fears and irrational fears. There is something deeply reassuring in the American legal system presented by King and his exploration of Thurgood Marshall as an agent of the fence or, as it is more commonly called, the law.  Our legal system is slow. It is messy. It is frustratingly inept at immediately addressing wrongs. But unlike any other system of government in the world, the U. S. strives toward justice, recognizing the supremacy of the individual over the state. The nation has not yet reached that goal.  It is trying and, if the “experiment” is not defeated by the one-percent, or the perpetually frightened, it will continue to try. That assessment comes from the broad sweep of American history.

In 1949 Lake County, Florida, a white seventeen-year-old said she was raped by four black men. The accusation set off the then typical reaction of a poor, rural southern population: the Ku Klux Klan prickled-up to defend southern woman-hood; local law enforcement and the judicial system went through the motions of imposing the law. The outcome of events would have also been typical had it not been for the National Association for Advancement of Colored People (NACCP) Legal Defense Fund and Thurgood Marshall, and a miniaturized, highly conflicted Atticus Finch type character who belatedly found a conscience.

DEVIL IN THE GROVE reads like the best suspenseful mystery. In fact, reading this book reinforces whatever appreciation you had in reading history in the first place.  Why do some people do what they did? If this or that particular person had known the results of their actions, would they have done anything differently? Indeed, did they have an opportunity to do anything differently? These are the inherent questions of looking backwards in time. Under the stewardship of a really good historical author, the questions can proliferate at a mind-boggling rate. DEVIL IN THE GROVE plants these twenty-twenty hindsight questions and lets you engage in one of those intellectual internal debates that expands your knowledge whether you want the expansion or not.

Gilbert King has managed to provide an incredibly balanced and succinct picture of Thurgood Marshall as a lawyer in the 1940s office of the NACCP Legal Defense Fund.  We come to feel we understand Marshall’s motivations, his objectives, and what strategies he uses to reach his desired goal. It is not all flattering and idealistic.  The word pragmatism comes to mind. King also provides us with snippets of the background in which Marshall operated:  J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, the feckless though ever agitating communists (in the form of the Civil Rights Congress, or CRC); and, not least, the ubiquitous rural county sheriffs who more often than not were protecting a fiefdom built upon some foundation of outright corruption. But there is no single explanation for the irrational fear that drives the mobs in a couple of instances the book touches on (the Alabama Scottsboro Boys case being the most notorious). Certainly there is no single explanation explaining the hysterical mod that sprung up after seventeen-year-old Norma Padgett made her accusation. “Race” is a nice categorizer, but, as we learn in reading this book, it is not an explanation of what drives irrational fears.

The juxtaposition of the tangible fear of Marshall and other NACCP lawyers traveling in the south that their lives were in mortal danger and the amorphous fear of southern mobs that the fabric of their lives was being challenged gives the events chronicled in DEVIL IN THE GROVE a surrealistic taint. The first is brought home by events leading up to the death of Florida NACCP official Harry Tyson Moore. The amorphous fear of the white southern mobs is aptly demonstrated by the absence of any proof that Norma Padgett was actually raped.  King makes a point of this twice in the book. There was no physical evidence of a rape (Gilbert King blog ). There were no witnesses. The reason for the fear of the NACCP lawyers is plainly evident. The reason for the fear of the southern mobs is not only amorphous, it is concealed within a cloud of economics (one-industry towns), corruption (illegal gambling fiefdoms protected by law enforcement), and egos (men like Sheriff Willis V. McCall of Lake County, Florida).

While the story of the Groveland Boys’ case is the main focus of this book and Thurgood Marshall’s part in it, the take away is much more significant than the blip in time represented by the horrific events surrounding the four accused rapists.  For this reviewer, the most intriguing character in the entire affair was the Florida States Attorney Jesse Hunter.  It was Hunter who prosecuted the three remaining accused rapists. He also headed the prosecution of the last of the remaining three who was alive after a new trial was needed. The information provided by King on Hunter gives the impression that Hunter’s legal career was having an effect upon his morality. Irrational fears corralled by societal laws—the breath and constraints of morality. People do change when laws are enforced.

Thurgood Marshall was appointed an Associate Justice of the U. S. Supreme Court by President Lyndon Johnson in 1967, becoming the first Black to hold the position. Marshall served until October 1991.  What Marshall did before getting a seat on the Supreme Court is less well known.  DEVIL IN THE GROVE fills-in many of the blanks. It is either a credit to Gilbert King that DEVIL IN THE GROVE is much more than the story of one man, or a credit to Marshall that his work in civil rights encompassed the core of America’s reason for existence. Either way, this is an informative and mind-expanding book.

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