'Devil in the Grove': Thurgood Marshall's battle with deadly injustice
Gilbert King's "Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America" tells the story of one of the most difficult cases future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall ever argued — defending two African-American men accused of raping a white woman, both shot while in a Florida sheriff's custody.
Special to The Seattle Times
'Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America'
by Gilbert King
Harper Collins, 400 pp., $26.99
A photo of Sheriff Willis V. McCall adorns the cover of "Devil in the Grove," Gilbert King's excellent telling of one of the most difficult cases Thurgood Marshall ever argued.
The picture shows the Lake County, Fla., law officer standing by the side of his 1951 Oldsmobile after shooting two handcuffed African-American prisoners. They had just been granted a new trial, and McCall was taking them away from death row, when he claimed they attacked him.
When McCall had to defend his actions, he said, "I expect I'll get a lot of criticism for this, but I'd rather be criticized than dead." His prisoners weren't so lucky: One died, but the other survived to tell the story of the sheriff's unprovoked murderous rage. The book's cover, perhaps in a nod to bookstore decorum, edits out the victims in the original photo.
McCall is a central character in the civil-rights case that came to be known as the Groveland Boys, or the Groveland Four. It involved the 1949 claim by a white woman that four African Americans raped her. There was no physical evidence, and two of the men weren't within a day's drive of where the woman said the attack occurred.
The case bears a remarkable similarity to the story that Harper Lee chronicled in "To Kill a Mockingbird," though Lee found inspiration in a different case. But like Lee's Atticus Finch, the real-life Thurgood Marshall, who would eventually become the U.S. Supreme Court's first African-American justice, admirably fought this case, and lost. Just after the Groveland case, Marshall would argue Brown v. Board of Education and find a more satisfactory outcome.
This is a complicated story, involving four separate defendants, several trials, various appeals, numerous defense attorneys, multiple judges and many different points of law.
And though King, a writer and photographer who contributes to Smithsonian Magazine, does an admirable job keeping to the facts without hyperbole, the scope here is so large and complicated that the narrative might have been better served by condensing parts of the story. Covering two trials, a retrial and various appeals may make the canvas too large to maintain tension.
And despite the subtitle, Marshall is not the only major character. NAACP lawyer Franklin Williams is an equally charismatic and important figure here, though much lesser known.
But it is also hard to underestimate the effect that Thurgood Marshall had on this case, the drama he brought to the courtroom and the personal courage he displayed. The sheriff murdered one of his defendants. Marshall lived with constant death threats and had several near-misses with violence.
Perhaps even more than Brown v. Board of Education, Marshall comes across as a man who was willing to risk everything for what he believed was right. In doing so, as a single individual in this case and many others, he did change the face of a new America.
Marshall would go on to argue more cases before the United States Supreme Court than anyone in history. He became that court's first African-American justice in 1967. He served as Supreme Court justice from 1967 until 1991.
As for Sheriff Willis V. McCall, he was never charged with shooting his two prisoners. He spent 21 more years as Lake County Sheriff, before he was indicted in an unrelated case where he killed yet another African-American prisoner in his care. McCall died in 1994, but managed to outlive Marshall, who passed away in 1993.
There is little doubt, though, about which man had a bigger impact on our nation. "Devil in the Grove" intertwines their stories in an important, and hopefully never forgotten, chapter of American history.
Seattle writer Charles R. Cross is the author of biographies of Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix.