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

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

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by Gilbert King

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Devil in the Grove is the winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction.

Arguably the most important American lawyer of the twentieth century, Thurgood Marshall was on the verge of bringing the landmark suit Brown v. Board of Education before the U.S. Supreme Court when he became embroiled in an explosive and deadly case that

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Devil in the Grove is the winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction.

Arguably the most important American lawyer of the twentieth century, Thurgood Marshall was on the verge of bringing the landmark suit Brown v. Board of Education before the U.S. Supreme Court when he became embroiled in an explosive and deadly case that threatened to change the course of the civil rights movement and cost him his life.

In 1949, Florida’s orange industry was booming, and citrus barons got rich on the backs of cheap Jim Crow labor. To maintain order and profits, they turned to Willis V. McCall, a violent sheriff who ruled Lake County with murderous resolve. When a white seventeen-year-old Groveland girl cried rape, McCall was fast on the trail of four young blacks who dared to envision a future for themselves beyond the citrus groves. By day’s end, the Ku Klux Klan had rolled into town, burning the homes of blacks to the ground and chasing hundreds into the swamps, hell-bent on lynching the young men who came to be known as “the Groveland Boys.”

And so began the chain of events that would bring Thurgood Marshall, the man known as “Mr. Civil Rights,” into the deadly fray. Associates thought it was suicidal for him to wade into the “Florida Terror” at a time when he was irreplaceable to the burgeoning civil rights movement, but the lawyer would not shrink from the fight—not after the Klan had murdered one of Marshall’s NAACP associates involved with the case and Marshall had endured continual threats that he would be next.

Drawing on a wealth of never-before-published material, including the FBI’s unredacted Groveland case files, as well as unprecedented access to the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund files, King shines new light on this remarkable civil rights crusader, setting his rich and driving narrative against the heroic backdrop of a case that U.S. Supreme Court justice Robert Jackson decried as “one of the best examples of one of the worst menaces to American justice.”

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Editorial Reviews

In July 1949, a young white couple, Norma and Willie Padgett, told police that seventeen-year-old Norma had been raped by four black men near Groveland, Florida, setting in motion one of the most dramatic civil rights cases of the twentieth century. Gilbert King's Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America recreates an important yet overlooked moment in American history with a chilling, atmospheric narrative that reads more like a Southern Gothic novel than a work of history.

King, author of The Execution of Willie Francis, observes that Florida, despite its "boundless capacity for racial inhumanity," was considered "south of the South"; it had somehow managed to escape the scrutiny of, say, Mississippi or Alabama (site of the similar and better- known Scottsboro Boys case of 1931) despite recording more lynchings than any other state. Within hours of the Padgetts' claim, three suspects — World War II veterans Sam Shepherd and Walter Irvin and teenager Charles Greenlee — were being held for the crime. Hundreds of men stormed the jail, clamoring for a lynching. When the mob was turned away, crowds descended upon black Groveland, shooting into houses and burning down the home of Shepherd's father, who had managed to buy land to farm independently rather than working in the citrus groves, as blacks in rural Lake County were expected to do. A fourth suspect, Ernest Thomas, escaped into the swamps, only to be later caught and killed by a large mob.

"The American justice system was wholly stacked against powerless blacks," King writes, and the bulk of the narrative concerns the appalling twists and turns of the legal case against the defendants, known as the Groveland Boys. Under the brutal interrogation of Lake County sheriff Willis McCall, all three were beaten and whipped until they confessed to the crime. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, having monitored the disturbing news reports about the case from the beginning, decided to become directly involved. The defense was handled first by Franklin Williams and eventually by future Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, who was by then already a celebrity known as "Mr. Civil Rights." With the white supremacist Sheriff McCall and the Ku Klux Klan holding a tight grip on the county, Williams, Marshall, and the other black attorneys and reporters who traveled to and from central Florida to work on the case risked their lives to do so.

Williams later described the first trial in unreal terms, as "a story that I was living through," replete with a stiflingly hot courtroom, a judge who whittled cedar sticks throughout the proceedings, and hostile white spectators crowding the benches. To this day it is not at all clear that a rape took place, but the NAACP lawyers had to find ways to defend the Groveland Boys without ever hinting that a white woman, even one known around town as "a bad egg," might be lying. Despite prosecutorial misconduct and extremely weak evidence, the three defendants were quickly found guilty, with Shepherd and Irvin sentenced to death.

The NAACP appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, which in 1951 overturned the convictions and ordered a retrial, calling Florida's discriminatory handling of the case "one of the best examples of one of the worst menaces to American justice." But the case took a nightmarish turn when Sheriff McCall, transporting Shepherd and Irvin from death row to their retrial in Lake County, shot the two men multiple times on a deserted back road, claiming they had tried to escape. Shepherd died instantly, leaving only the wounded Irvin to be represented by Marshall at his retrial. Irvin was promptly convicted and sentenced to death a second time, but after some dramatic maneuvering by Marshall, which included his barging in on a card game between Chief Justice Fred Vinson and President Harry Truman and convincing Vinson to sign a stay of execution, his sentence was eventually commuted by Florida's governor.

There is much that shocks in King's wrenching account, from the small indignities, like the prosecutor mistaking the black lawyers for the defendants, up to the monstrous crimes. These include not just the highly suspicious killing of Shepherd by McCall (who managed to continue what King calls his "reign of terror" as sheriff until 1972, despite forty-nine separate investigations of misconduct charges) but the subsequent murder of Harry Moore, killed along with his wife when their house was bombed. Moore, the first civil rights leader to be assassinated in the United States, was the NAACP's executive secretary in Florida and a tireless advocate on behalf of the Groveland defendants. Nobody was ever charged in the Moores' deaths.

Throughout the book, the author periodically widens his focus to explore the case's broader context, noting that the alleged rape gave McCall and his deputies "an excuse to do some heavy housekeeping with regard to black troublemakers and potential instigators." Their list would have certainly included returning veterans like Shepherd and Irvin and independent farmers like Shepherd's father — all viewed as "uppity" by whites who tolerated blacks in Groveland only so long as they understood their place, providing cheap labor for the white-owned citrus groves.

King also provides insight into Marshall's long-range legal strategy of chipping away at injustice. He fully expected to lose jury trials in the South, but you fought, he explained, "so that you lived to fight another day," by establishing grounds for appeal. Just before arguing the landmark Brown v. Board of Education, Marshall emerges as a heroic figure, facing great risk with courage and gallows humor. King writes that "there is not a Supreme Court justice who served with Marshall or a lawyer who clerked for him that did not hear his renditions, always colorfully told, of the Groveland story." While the case, until now, has been mostly forgotten, Marshall, for good reason, never forgot it.

Barbara Spindel has covered books for Time Out New York,, Details, andSpin. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies.

Reviewer: Barbara Spindel

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HarperCollins Publishers
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What People are saying about this

Michael G. Long

“Gilbert King’s gut-wrenching, and captivating, narrative is civil rights literature at its best—meticulously researched, brilliantly written, and singularly focused on equal justice for all.”

Kevin Boyle

“In the terrifying story of the Groveland boys Gilbert King recreates an extraordinary moment in America’s long, hard struggle for racial justice. Devil in the Grove is a harrowing, haunting, utterly mesmerizing book.”

Wil Haygood

“The tragic Groveland saga — with its Faulknerian echoes of racial injustice spinning around an accusation of rape — comes astonishingly alive in Gilbert King’s narrative. It is both heartbreaking and unforgettable.”

Ira Katznelson

“Its rich case history captures the beginning of the end of the most extreme forms of racism. . . . Very few books combine this depth of research and narrative power about a subject of such pivotal significance.”

Phyllis Vine

“This is a haunting and compelling story, one of many in the campaign for racial justice. . . . This book is important because it is disturbing. And in that regard we cannot walk away from the story it tells.”

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Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America 4.6 out of 5 based on 1 ratings. 40 reviews.
SarahTurn More than 1 year ago
I thought this book was going to too dark and violent for my tastes, but I was wrong. This book is masterful in the way the author changes pace, alternating between history and heartstopping drama. At turns, King describes with great clarity the citrus economy, or the corruption in Florida politics that set the state for a story like Groveland. Other times, he takes great care to deliver the shocking plot twists, usually the result of Sheriff Willis McCall's racism. But the book presents a balanced look at the characters who are caught in "the Dawn of a New America" where the times are changing in Florida. That's what's so amazing about this story. Thurgood Marshall was right at the center of these changes not just in Florida, but across the country. And it all plays out in the shadowy land the author calls, south of the South. Devil in the Grove is one of the best books I've read in a long, long time. Part of why I liked it so much is it brings a bit of glory and recognition to the lawyers in this story from the NAACP, black and white, who put their lives on the line. Yes, their lives were literally on the line. One was even killed by the KKK at the start of the rape trial! I have to say that despite the heavy subject, I laughed several times while reading this book. Thurgood Marshall had a wonderful sense of humor on display and the trial is such a farce, with the prosecutor making a mockery of every defense witness, that it was hard not to bust out laughing, thinking that some of these things really happened in an American courtroom in the 20th century. Highly recommended.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Timely, thoroughly researched, well written and a story that resonates in our time. One of the best pieces of contemporary history to come along in a very long time. If this is the only book you read this summer, your time will be very well spent.
gus69 More than 1 year ago
I am still reading this book but I am enjoying very much. I am an Historian by training and the book exposes what the civil rights situation, at the end of WWII, was like in the South. It is a fast paced and very well written book.
dfn1 More than 1 year ago
This is a fascinating book about a terrible travesty of justice. It seems to be well researched. It didn't know the outcome, and it was difficult to put the book down. I knew nothing about Thurgood Marshall except that he was a Supreme Court justice, and it was very interesting to learn about his earlier law career. Maybe I shouldn't be, but I was shocked that this occurred during my lifetime (the 1940's and 50's).
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
An intriguing true story; well investigated, well written. This book definitely deserved the Pulitzer prize it got.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I live in Central Florida, but am a transplant from Wisconsin; this book was fantastic. I really believe that the struggle for Civil Rights as it is taught, tends to trivialize or neglect the difficulties that many hero's like Thurgood Marshall and many, many others engaged in. I Highly recommend this book to fellow Civics and US History teachers. The brutality of segregation against blacks and the corrosive effect it had on white society is almost a theological, as well as a Historical dilemma that this book explores.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The story moves quickly with a nice combination of history, legal and personal points of view. It was clear and provided a new view on the Civil Rights movement.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is brilliantly written; it reads like a novel, but it actually happened. It's a thorough examination of the early professional years of Thurgood Marshall's career. It was revealing to me how pervasive and virulent the racism in Florida was around 1950, and how small-town justice was meted out by racist, sociopathic local lawmen by means of pistols and shotguns. I sometimes think that racism is still prevalent in the entire United States, but this book shows how egregiously present it was in Florida after WWII. It still exists, but it's just subtler and less murderous. I would also recommend this author's previous book, The Execution of Willie (Last name?), which has some of the same tension and excellent narrative.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a story everyone needs to read! My only complaint is that the dates and order of events (mostly ancillary events rather than the main story line) were confusing, especially for the first half of the book. It is a trite expression that if we don't know our history we are bound to repeat it. But as I read this book I couldn't help but think how applicable that is to the Groveland boys-- all Americans need to know this story so that this kind of injustice will never be tolerated again.
Reader212 More than 1 year ago
Gilbert King is to be commended for this accomplishment. His writing style is masterful and his extensive research is exhaustive and thorough. One can only wonder why this case has not been dissected in the past. I continually had to remind myself that this was not a true crime novel but a non-fiction book depicting the worst of the Jim Crow era. Mr. King's remarkable style leaves the reader somewhat breathless in its wake and he is to be commended for offering us a work that will, no doubt, be a classic study of Thurgood Marshall's diligent work, through the courts, to attain equal rights for all Americans.
aarjay More than 1 year ago
This book reveals why Thurgood Marshall will be remember as one of the greatest Supreme Court Justices in our history. A warrior for the equal protection of every citizen of this great country if ours. It reveals some of the horrors of our past and hopefully encourages us to not allow these evils to repeat in our future.
MerlinDB More than 1 year ago
Very informative look at the pre-civil rights South and the struggles of some courageous people.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Awarded a well deserved Pulitzer King deftly describes the lawlessness inflicted on the Black Population in post World War 11 Cental Florida by law enforcement itself. The great debt the Civil Rights Movement owes Thurgood Marshall is chronicled in rich detail. Marshall is a giant figure in Twentieth Century America who is not given his due.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a story that will amaze and in some way bring out the best in all
CEC23 More than 1 year ago
This book is gripping, informative, shocking and depressing all at the same time. I am so ashamed of my southern "white" brothers for their hatred and cruelty. The idea that skin color is a valid assessment of a person's humaness is as stupid as the bias that exists either for or against a person because of his/her religion or politics or sexual preferences. I am thrilled that Thurgood Marshall was able to use the judicial system to "educate" and make some progress toward respecting all people. There is still today too much of the "us vs them" divisions in our society. This book helps to bring some prospective to our journey to brotherhood.
OlyDan More than 1 year ago
An excellent book about a very troubling part of our shared history. Great history and great writing as well. Reminds one of how so much in human history is complex yet connected. Highly recommend.
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BettyBoop91 More than 1 year ago
Thurgood Marshall is an icon of the Civil Rights movement and this book details the human side and the specific difficulties incurred by the NAACP LDF before the decision in 1954 which overturned segregation. Although it is a historical documentary, the writing style is like a fiction book and is very engaging. Every American should read it!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A really good book and an interesting read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Often times a book of this scope is to follow because of the sheer number of characters that have to be included and intoduced to the reader - not so in this case. The author does an excellent job of keeping the story easy to follow. The notes at the end of the book are a true sign of a well researched and thought out delivery of a grim time in U.S history (authors often leave out the all important bibliography these days and I really appreciated seeing all the works cited on these pages). Gilbert King tells this horrific story of hate, ignorance, murder and injustice in a straight forward, almost matter-of-fact way; without being melodramatic or sensationalist the truth is that much more poignant. A truth that however embarrassing to the history of our nation needs to be known and remembered so as never to be repeated...because there might not be a Thurgood Marshall and so many other brave souls willing to dedicate their lives to enlightenment and reform the next time around.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great thorough read! Well researched and put together.