Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys and the Dawn of a New America

  • Gilbert King
  • Harper Collins
  • 434 pp.
  • May 23, 2012

A true crime tale that educates and fascinates, spotlighting both known and seldom-recognized heroes of the US civil rights movement.

Reviewed by Bruce Allen Murphy

Devil in the Grove is the dramatic and deeply disturbing account of one of the least known, but most important, Jim Crow criminal cases of the 20th century. The 1931 Scottsboro Boys case, and the efforts of the defendants’ legendary attorney, Samuel Leibowitz, are well-remembered, but few recall the equally influential “Little Scottsboro” case in Groveland, Florida in 1949.

In the Groveland case, four young African-American men were falsely accused of the rape of a white, married, teenaged woman in the orange growing region of central Florida. Two of the men were guilty of little more than stopping to aid a pair of stranded motorists, while the other two were nowhere near the scene of the alleged crime. Devil in the Grove tells of the heroic efforts of Thurgood Marshall, the legendary NAACP Legal Defense Fund attorney and later Supreme Court justice, who labored to save one of them from execution. Wrapped in this true crime tale is a riveting political and legal history of the early development and operation of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, leading up to Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.

When we think of Thurgood Marshall now, many recall the words spoken by Lyndon Baines Johnson upon appointing him to the Supreme Court in 1967: “The right thing to do, the right time to do it, the right man, and the right place.” This book provides the background for the truth of those words, presenting an indelible image of “Lawyer Marshall” to go along with the better known image of “Supreme Court Justice Marshall.” “Mr. Civil Rights,” as Marshall was called then throughout the South, was a genuine hero to those hoping for justice for African-Americans when all the power was held by whites. “Thurgood’s coming!” gave the local African-American community hope when justice needed to be served. Supporters would stand guard all night to protect Marshall from the Ku Klux Klan, which sought to frighten him away from representing the wrongly accused. But Marshall did not frighten easily, even when his life was in jeopardy, and never backed down from a legal fight. As a result, the end of another successful trial nearly always led to a mad dash out of town with the KKK and local segregationists on his tail.

Here we see a Thurgood Marshall who was brilliant enough to persuade even bigoted southern judges to keep his clients off death row while he laid the groundwork for their eventual  appeals to the only “level playing field” in America’s legal system, the U.S. Supreme Court. He was talented enough as an advocate to win 29 of 32 cases before that Court, eloquent enough as a speaker to raise tens of thousands of dollars for the Legal Defense Fund, and  folksy enough as a story-teller to be welcomed for a drink even in white Southern bars that no other African-American dared to enter. As one of the book’s most astonishing scenes shows, only Marshall had audacity enough to barge in on one of the most private of poker games, interrupting a chief justice and a president, to plead his client’s case at the last minute.

The book brings to life such characters as Sheriff Willis McCall, the “Devil in the Grove,” who was only the most prominent of scores of devils seeking to maintain the Jim Crow South; prosecuting attorney Jesse Hunter (who later came to admire Marshall and played a pivotal role in the case’s eventual resolution); and the “whittlin’ judge,” Truman G. Futch, who dispensed his form of rural white “justice” from the bench while whittling cedar sticks. The story is both a fascinating crime narrative and an exceedingly well-documented history. Its detail derives from the recent release of the Legal Defense Fund’s records and from extensive files that the FBI gathered in order to protect Marshall’s safety — ironically, on the orders of the same J. Edgar Hoover who would later order the surveillance and harassment of Martin Luther King, Jr.

While the Russian-novel-like narrative is filled with a bewildering array of characters and incidents, many told in difficult-to-unravel flashbacks and sidetracks, slowly working your way through the book is well worth the effort. When you are finished you will be horrified at the account of an America that we thankfully can no longer recognize, and you will feel indebted to people like Thurgood Marshall, his mentor Charles Hamilton Houston, who trained generations of African-American attorneys and judges at the Howard University Law School, and the martyred Harry T. Moore, who made possible the NAACP chapter in Florida. Each risked his health and life to change America. And you will understand the pivotal role that the Legal Defense Fund played in ending Jim Crow beyond the school desegregation cases. For this reason, I often wished that the book’s title had been something closer to “Thurgood Marshall and Little Scottsboro,” or perhaps “Mr. Civil Rights and the Groveland Boys,” to reflect the central role of Marshall and the Legal Defense Fund in this story.

This terrifying and indelible account of Marshall’s battle against Jim Crow should be read by everyone interested in the history of civil rights in the United States. Along with Richard Kluger’s authoritative Simple Justice, Devil in the Grove offers a powerful case that Thurgood Marshall deserves a monument in Washington D.C. for his heroic efforts to end Jim Crow in America.

Bruce Allen Murphy is the Fred Morgan Kirby Professor of Civil Rights at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. He is the author, most recently, of Wild Bill: The Legend and Life of William O. Douglas and is working on a biography of Justice Antonin Scalia.

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