Book: Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America by Gilbert King
Publication date: 2012
Summary: Pulitzer Prize-winning Devil in the Grove reports the history of an incident in Lake County, Florida, when four black men were accused of raping a white woman in 1949. The aftermath included white race riots, KKK-influence on government actions, violence by law enforcement, and multiple court cases.
The subtitle mentions the one case that is at the heart of the book but readers are given lots of context — the NAACP in the early 1950s, Harlem near the end of the Black Renaissance, Washington DC at the beginning of the Red Scare. Brown v Board of Education (the Supreme Court decision that ended school segregation) was still a few years in the future, but we get to see the last part of the decades-long process that led to that landmark decision. Thurgood Marshall had roles to play in all of these arenas.
Thoughts: I’m always surprised as I continue to read books for the Diversity Book Club at how much I still have to learn. This book gave me several new facts and thoughts.
KKK. The Ku Klux Klan was not just the fringe extremist group I like to think it is — their members were powerful government officials (Are they still? After all, the sons and grandsons and great-grandsons of the men in this book may have inherited their wealth and power).
Brown v BoE. The road between the 1896 Plessy v Ferguson decision (that allowed for “separate but equal” education) and the the 1954 Brown v Board of Education decision was long. I didn’t know how carefully that journey was mapped and fought by generations of black men and women and their white allies. During the years described in Devil in the Grove, Thurgood Marshall took the mantle from his mentor Charles Hamilton Houston.
Southern white woman. White women suffered under the mid-20th century system, while supposedly being honored on a pedestal, as evidenced by a quote from journalist Richard Carter about Norma Padgett, the purported victim in the case:
You watch her on the witness stand. You listen to her story. You note the righteous ferocity with which the prosecution defends that story. You note the timidity with which the defense challenges it. You count the dead…Ernest Thomas…Sammy Shepherd…maybe Walter Irvin…and you realize that it’s perfectly all right to starve a Southern white woman and deprive her of education and make her old before her time, but by God, no damned outsider is going to dare question the sanctity of her private parts, the incontrovertibility of her spoken word. p. 300
Appeal: Devil in the Grove will appeal to history lovers. If you love legal thrillers, this book might also be an interesting choice. I know that I stayed up way too late one night while reading the scenes about the first trial.
Challenges: Devil in the Grove is about Thurgood Marshall, his colleagues at the NAACP, and black residents in Florida with the difficult world they navigated. So, I’m counting it as book number 5 for Diversity on the Shelf. It is also book number 12 on my Nonfiction Reading Challenge.
Since Groveland is the name of a town in Florida, I’m going to call this my “city” for the What’s in a Name challenge.
Reviews: Rhapsody in Books described Devil in the Grove as a “horrifying, edge-of-your-seat tale.” Kim at Sophisticated Dorkiness was surprised by the book: “Despite the description of the book as a ‘Southern Gothic tale,’ I wasn’t expecting The Devil in the Grove to be as emotionally engaging (and frankly, outrageous) as it turned out to be.” Amy at Amy Reads makes a point that I hadn’t thought about — there’s a problematic element to a book about a false accusation of rape when rape remains a crime that is under-reported and poorly handled in our society.
Have you read this book? What did you think?