I’ve been looking for some really good non-fiction, and thanks to a friend’s recommendation, I found it in “Devil in the Grove,” an absolutely stunning story about Thurgood Marshall and racism in the deep south in the 1940s. This book is a must-read. It won the Pulitzer Prize, and after reading it, it’s obvious why.
The quick story here: four innocent African-Americans are accused of raping a young, married white woman in Lake County, Florida, in a town called Groveland. They become known as “The Groveland Boys” and their story is the focus of the book. We meet an incredibly racist and violent sheriff named Willis McCall, a town full of Klansmen, a young white female reporter, courageous lawyers, and lying accusers. Most won’t be familiar with this case, but it’s quite obviously an important story in our nation’s ugly history of racism and injustice.
Over and over, I kept asking myself, could this story really be true? It felt like a movie (and it may be one day), and each new chapter contained some element of awful drama that left my jaw open just a bit more. The story builds with one tragedy after another, to the point where the reader is just smothered with dread and sadness. I felt a sick feeling in my stomach as I read about the horrible circumstances of this case. We should rightly be ashamed that this could have happened in the United States.
If you care at all about American history, you should read this book. It’s an important piece of the story, as it features individuals who would, through the fifties, sixties, and seventies, leave their mark on history.
Which brings me to Thurgood Marshall. When this story takes place, Marshall was a young lawyer, carefully building a case that would result in the Brown vs. Board of Education victory. He’s a fascinating figure, and inasmuch as this book is about four grievously injured young men, it’s also about Marshall’s incredible influence on the civil rights movement.
What I enjoyed most was seeing how Marshall played the long game. He was careful in how he selected cases, choosing those that would help the movement most in the long-term. He was pragmatic and didn’t like tilting at windmills. His gallows humor and willingness to work behind the scenes to influence an issue are indicative of how he worked. He was tireless and courageous. The author, Gilbert King, does a masterful job portraying Marshall as a hero, but wisely stops short of making him a superhero, granting us peeks into the man’s achievements as well as his flaws. And by the end of the book, it’s quite obvious that Marshall deserves far greater reverence than he receives when we discuss civil rights and the law.
The time period is relevant and worth a mention. Most of us think of the sixties as the age of the civil rights movement, and we credit Dr. King, Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and others who suffered to achieve racial equality. It’s more rare to read in depth about those who were working in the trenches in the forties and fifties, working to prevent lynching, false imprisonment, and intimidation. They did a heavy lift of justice and there were fewer allies sympathetic to the cause.
There’s one notable moment where King is describing Marshall’s interaction with an attorney from the state of Oklahoma, arguing over a segregation case. The assistant AG was “distasteful” man, spewing racist hatred left and right. Yet in 1948, they encountered each other at the Supreme Court, and the AG was notably less strident–even sympathetic to Marshall’s cause. Marshall asked what happened and the AG said “My son’s been a student at the University of Oklahoma…He’s been berating me about it…He convinced me that I was a jackass.” Throughout history, despite the fact it has been criticized by older generations, the progressivism of younger generations on topics of civil rights and fairness has had outsized influence on how we have grown as a nation. There are a few of these interactions in the book, especially in the concluding pages, and while they are inspiring, they don’t make up for the repugnant behavior of others in the book.
This book is flat out disturbing at times. It’s a reminder of just how cruel our country was. While you will admire Marshall and his team–and that will make you proud–you’ll also just feel terrible for the four young men who were caught up in the situation. It will break your heart. As it should.
The paradox of this book is that Marshall sought and achieved great justice through the American legal system. He always had his eye on the Supreme Court’s docket, trusting that the law and constitution would bring justice, and with Brown vs. Board of Education, it did. Yet the same system, at the local level, allowed this terrible injustice to happen to the Groveland boys. How Marshall was able to not lose faith in the system along the way is unimaginable. I’ve never really wanted to be an attorney. Law school was a consideration for just a fleeting moment. But I suspect that had I read this book 15 years ago, I’d be practicing law. Thurgood Marshall’s work in the law is awe-inspiring.
Thanks for reading.