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Devil in the Grove

'Devil' is a compelling look at the case that forged Thurgood Marshall’s perception of himself as a crusader for civil rights.

By Monitor correspondent / March 7, 2012

Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America By Gilbert King HarperCollins 448 pp.


The grandson of a mixed-race slave named Thorny Good Marshall, the man remembered as Mr. Civil Rights, made his mark on the annals of history with his victory in the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954. But in fact, Thurgood Marshall’s struggle against inequality began much earlier, not in the burnished marble chamber of the highest court in the land, but instead in “stifling antebellum courthouses where white supremacy ruled.”

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It was there, author Gilbert King writes, that the young attorney’s resolve was hardened and his powers of persuasion tested, not by nuanced arguments of constitutional precedent, but by the willful malice of entrenched racism.

King’s new book, Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America, centers around one of the most explosive and physically dangerous trials Marshall ever tried. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund had taken on what in 1950’s Florida was an unwinnable capital case: the alleged rape of a white woman by a black man. Norma Padgett was a young bride – just 17 and dressed in her Sunday best as if she were going to a high school dance – when she rose from the witness box and slowly, purposefully, condemned three innocent young black men to death with the point of her index finger.

Ernest Thomas, Charles Greenlee, Sam Shepherd, and Walter Irvin were caught in a web of lies woven by a justice system corrupted by the forces of the Klu Klux Klan and a bloodthirsty, swaggering, sheriff named Willis McCall. By the time the “Groveland Boys” even reached the courtroom in Lake County, Florida, the number of the accused had already been reduced to three – fleeing from an armed posse of hundreds on the morning following the alleged crime in 1949, an unarmed Ernest Thomas had been shot and killed.

His death would not be the last. By the final chapter, the “Boys” had been reduced to two: Charles Greenlee, granted the “reprieve” of life imprisonment due to his young age, and Walter Irvin, the miraculous survivor of attempted murder at the hands of Sheriff McCall himself. The case was an instant spark in the tinderbox of a state that at the time recorded a higher number of lynchings than any other region in the South. The lawyers who helped try the case for the NAACP showed tremendous courage every time they crossed over the county line. At one point even J. Edgar Hoover acknowledged their perilous position when he took the significant step of offering Marshall F.B.I. protection. But King makes the convincing case that for Marshall, the Groveland trial was not simply another unwinnable tragedy. “The case,” King writes, “was key to Marshall’s perception of himself as a crusader for civil rights, as a lawyer.”


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