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

Americans like to praise themselves for their ability to recognize, and to rise above their prejudices; to eventually do the right thing by those that have been oppressed and marginalized in our society. We praise Abraham Lincoln for emancipating the slaves; we praise Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton for eventually achieving women’s suffrage; we praise Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey and most especially Martin Luther King Jr. for Civil Rights advances in the 1960s; and we revere the genius of the founders for producing governing documents that lend themselves to an interpretation that asserts more freedom, more compassion, more equality, and more liberty for our citizens. We use this praise to assert a progressive vision of America and its institutions.

Each of those mentioned above, along with many, many others, are deserving of the praise accorded them. But, instead of using their example as proof of the worthiness of our system, what we should perhaps be doing a lot more of, is asking why we always seem to get into situations where change requires the extraordinary efforts of extraordinary people to accomplish it. Why can we not EVER learn from past experience to keep us from making the same mistakes over and over and over again?

I do think a system that produces men like Thurgood Marshall, Harry T. Moore, and Charles Hamilton Houston certainly must have its admirable qualities, and I think that is in part attributable to the foresight of the founders. But we are also a country that cannot seem to learn from its mistakes. We tolerated discrimination and violence against African Americans for far too long, and still tolerate it. We are the same country that allowed travesties like the subject of this great book, the “Groveland Boys” case, to occur (only a decade before I was born), and we seem to be sliding back into an ethic that again condones prejudice and discrimination.

Martin Luther King Jr famously said “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I would love to believe that, and I hope it is true, but my faith in that notion is being sorely tested. Books like this one, shine a very bright light on our history, and force us to face the notion that we should not only be praised for overcoming our own evil, but rather should be criticized for allowing it to fester for so long.

Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America by Gilbert King is an absolutely superb book. A beautifully and tightly written narrative, it recounts the events surrounding the Groveland, FL rape case in 1949. Four African American men – Walter Irvin, Charles Greenlee, Sam Shepherd, and Ernest Thomas – were falsely accused of raping 17 year old Norma Lee Padgett. Railroaded by a racist Sheriff, the odious and evil Willis V. McCall, a racist judge Truman Futch, and a go along to get along prosecutor Jesse Hunter ,the four men were convicted of the crime despite there being no evidence other than planted shoe impressions, and the word of Padgett herself.

Parallel to this narrative is a history of Thurgood Marshall and his time as lead council for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Eventually the two stories intersect as the NAACP takes on the case of the “Groveland Boys, ” taking it to the Supreme Court twice, and eventually the office of the Florida Governor.

While this is a historic event whose outcome is well known, it is not a story many have heard before. The narrative style of the book demands some level of uncertainty as to its outcome for it to have the full effect. So I won’t be providing any spoilers here. This is ironic because knowing the level of racism in the south, the sway the KKK still had over whole swaths of the region, including Lake County, FL where this takes place, the ending seems foreshadowed. Still, there are enough twists and turns in the story to more than keep your attention and turn this into a genuine page turner.

I think part the author’s intention with this book was to inspire us with the stories of men like Marshall who were able to use their intellect, morality and persistence to overcome injustice from inside the system, and with the courage of the Groveland Boys themselves who, despite having to endure what can only be described as torture – both physical and mental – asserted their innocence knowing to do so would almost certainly result in their deaths.

I was inspired by them. But contrary, I believe, to the authors further intention, this did not lead me to believe in the efficacy of our system, or that it inevitably bends us toward justice. From my perspective, it is just the opposite. Justice is achieved despite our system. Only through the courage of people like the heroes in this story, who had to overcome a system stacked against them at almost every level, do we ever make progress toward a more just state.

This book is must reading!

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