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.”
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.”
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.
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.