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.
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Gilbert King is no stranger to America’s long history of racially biased trials. King’s previous book, “The Execution of Willie Francis,” chronicled the fascinating and similarly troubled saga of a young Louisiana black man sentenced to die for murder and the legal journey to save him. As in the case of Willie Francis, the Groveland Boys’ case ultimately reached the Supreme Court, where Marshall and his team masterfully persuaded the Court to overturn the conviction, only to see the death sentence reinstated in an appalling second trial. Lake County, it is clear, was intent on taking no prisoners.Skip to next paragraph
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King’s style, at once suspenseful and historically meticulous, advances the facts of the Groveland case while simultaneously weaving together details from Marshall’s professional rise within the NAACP and his home life in Harlem. Like so many great men, Marshall was hardly a saint. A charismatic conversationalist and ebullient lover of bourbon, the famous lawyer was heralded as a savior in the Deep South, and his long business trips – to the South and elsewhere – increasingly kept him away from his New York apartment and long-suffering wife, Buster. Granted in-depth access to the Legal Defense Fund’s files, as well as to the FBI’s unredacted case notes, the author is at his best when describing the complicated machinations working, to opposite ends, in the citrus groves of Groveland and the NAACP’s chaotic Fifth Avenue offices.
In 1966 US Solicitor General Marshall gave a famous speech, saying in part, “There is very little truth to the old refrain that one cannot legislate equality. Laws not only provide concrete benefits, they can even change the hearts of men – some men, anyhow – for good or evil.” Marshall said this more than a decade after the remarkable commuting of Irvin’s second death sentence by Florida’s newly elected Governor Leroy Collins. The Governor’s decision was based in part on the recommendation of one Jesse Hunter, the elderly former Lake County prosecutor who had overseen both of the state’s capital cases. It was, King writes, the beginning of a new dawn for the American consciousness.
In Groveland, Marshall’s success cannot be measured by the racism that remained – McCall would continue to terrorize the populace for over two decades – but by the ordinary people, like Hunter, whose hearts finally did change. As we celebrate Black History Month again this year, the story of the Thurgood Marshall and his Groveland Boys reminds us that man’s capacity for evil may be deep, but so is his capacity for change.
Meredith Bennett-Smith is a Monitor correspondent.