The Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America
We have a new contributor to our blog: Kate. Kate will be writing occasional reviews of non-fiction books in addition to a recurring feature dedicated to travels through Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. She starts us off with her first review but we will be seeing much more from her in the future. You can read her bio on our “about” page.
Devil in the Grove by Gilbert King
Published in: 2012
Awards: 2013 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction
Reviewed by: Kate
Find it/buy it here: Devil in the Grove
If you have been raised and educated in the United States, you should know the story of the tireless crusade of Martin Luther King for civil rights and his brutal assassination on a Memphis balcony. If you have a deeper interest in history or are African-American yourself, you may also be familiar with the notorious lynching of Emmet Till in 1955 Mississippi. Who was Thurgood Marshall? Why the first African-American Justice on Supreme Court of the United States of course. Even the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Memorial to Civil Rights Martyrs starts in 1955. Who gave their lives for the cause before the commonly recognized start of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s?
As a native Marylander I knew a little more about Mr. Marshall, including much of his fine work arguing cases before the SCOTUS, especially the landmark Brown v Board of Education. What I did not know, to my personal shame, was just how horrifically common lynching was in the United States in 1949 when a seventeen-year-old white woman in Groveland, Florida made a rather belated claim of rape against four young black men. This was a time in the United States where the most flimsily supported mere accusation by a white woman against a black man sent the black man to the electric chair while a confession of rape by a white man of a fourteen-year-old black girl resulted in a $100 fine.
Gilbert King’s magnificent Pulitzer Prize winning examination of the story of the Groveland Boys digs deep into the particulars of the case, from its hazy and highly dubious beginnings on a Florida back road through its numerous appeals to the highest court in the land. Along the way he gives a thorough background in the climate of race relations boiling over with the influx of African-American soldiers returning from their service in Europe and unsurprisingly wanting to be treated like actual human beings in their home towns. We also see the jealousy of poor uneducated whites who furiously resent the successful efforts of black neighbors to improve their lot through hard work. It becomes obvious early on that there is no real difference between the membership of the Ku Klux Klan and the muster rolls of the local constabulary.
There is more at play in this gross miscarriage of justice than simple racism though. Organized crime and the economic demands of the powerful citrus industry play a powerful role in the corruption of the law enforcement officers and justice system through the local and state levels. King documents a system where vagrancy laws were used to hold black laborers in virtual peonage in the groves. It was extremely dangerous to not work in the groves, as the Groveland boys discovered. Activists at the time actually used the phrase “is there Negro blood on your grapefruit?” to call Northern consumers’ attention to the worst atrocities in the system that provided them with their favorite Florida produce.
I made the mistake of doing a little background reading on the case before starting the book, thus “spoiling” myself for what would have read like an excellent crime/procedural thriller. Some of the twists and turns are unbelievable to someone without first-hand knowledge of this sort of institutionalized racism. An early scene has Marshall nearly lynched before making it out of town following a previous case in the deep south. I knew he was not going to be killed but I was still on the edge of my seat. If you go into this without much pre-knowledge you will be appalled at individuals who make a decent first impression and come to love others who start out as part of the problem. I freely admit that I shed some tears but I won’t tell you for whom because that would ruin the story.
Want to try it for yourself? You can buy your copy here: Devil in the Grove
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