The Devil Still Lives : Gilbert King’s DEVIL IN THE GROVE: THURGOOD MARSHALL, THE GROVELAND BOYS, AND THE DAWN OF A NEW AMERICA.
I just completed Gilbert King’s compelling non-fiction work, Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America. The book deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction in 2013. Yes, I’m a bit late to the party. Others, I’m sure, have spilled crates of ink in praise of this work.
The book offers a welcome introduction to some of the lesser known heroes of the Civil Rights Movement, like Charles Houston of Howard University School of Law. It also provides insight into the internal politics of the NAACP, and considerable insight into the broader issue of race relations in the post-WWII era. Those elements of the book are threaded nicely through more narrow-gauged narrative focused on the Groveland case in Florida in this era. The case involved the alleged rape of a young White woman by four Black men, in the midst of that portion of central Florida given over to orange groves.
The end result of the case was far from a just outcome. One suspect was killed while being apprehended. One received a life sentence after the first trial. As a new trial was approaching for the two men sentenced to death, one was killed while being transported from the state prison back to the county for a re-trial. The other was gravely wounded during the same trip. That final defendant was later sentenced to death, but his sentence was commuted by a newly-elected New South governor. After his eventual release, he died under relatively suspicious circumstances when he re-visited the county where he was first tried.
Gilbert King is a master storyteller, and the book has numerous dimensions worthy of detailed discussion. I will focus, however, on only one of those—the culture of racial violence and the racially-biased police and courts in Florida in the late forties and early fifties. The contours of that culture are a sharp reminder that what we see today with race and the criminal justice system in America has deep, thick roots in our history. The setting for this story is Florida, but it could be any southern state.
The principal characters in this tragedy are County Sheriff Willis McCall, Deputy James Yates, and carload after carload of heavily armed and angry “clay eating crackers,” as one of Marshall’s associates labeled them, from central Florida.
The two representatives of law enforcement, McCall and Yates, noted above are introduced on a high note. A young White woman claims to have been raped, and two Black suspects are in custody. Sheriff McCall had the men spirited away from the county jail and thwarted an incensed mob of over one hundred armed men who wanted blood vengeance. He sent the disgruntled and disappointed men, many of them KKK, home with a promise of “justice.” He was praised by the media, which he closely monitored–always clipping out stories in which he was named.
The mob drove away from the jail by way of Stuckey Still, the Black section of town. Almost all of the citizens in that area had heard of the alleged rape and had wisely taken to the woods. News of a Black-on-White crime, especially a rape, was a clarion call that every Black person knew would awaken what can only be called “the beast” of southern race hatred. They knew it was best to take the family out-of-sight, until tempers cooled, or some other poor soul had sated the beast’s appetite for blood.
In the end, the frustrated White men had to satisfy their thirst for violence by pouring shotgun fire into the Blue Flame, a juke joint empty except for one man who was wise enough to remain hidden. Though almost all the White men were known to the sheriff, he took no action to stop the vandalism or apprehend the vandals.
But McCall and his men were not the heroes lauded in the news of a foiled lynching. They systematically tortured the three suspects, until two confessed. Each was taken to the basement of the jail; his hands were tied to pipes above his head; he was stripped, and then he systematically beaten with a rubber hose and whatever else struck the officers’ or sheriff’s fancy. A coke bottle was shattered, and shards of glass spread beneath one of the suspects so that as he writhed during the beating, the glass lacerated his bare feet. The wonder is that all three survived and that one of the men, courageous beyond my ken, endured this and maintained his innocence throughout the ordeal.
All this seems to have occurred while the sheriff and his deputies were deeply involved in illegal gambling in their own and surrounding counties. To put the icing on the cake, the sheriff’s office played a major role in violently enforcing the seven-day work week in the groves. Prisoners were also a “captive” labor pool used to supply growers with cheap workers in an increasingly tight labor market. If maintaining a docile workforce meant the beating or even the death of a few malcontents and trouble-makers, then Sheriff McCall seemed exactly the man to do the job.
One of the four suspects heard of the three arrests and attempted to flee. A massive manhunt left him seated at the foot of a tree in the swamp, shot innumerable times. The fugitive’s connections to the other suspects were tenuous, but he was clearly involved with gamblers who were competitors of the sheriff’s business partners.
The first trial, a classic southern version of a show trial, led to three guilty verdicts. The verdict for the youngest defendant, who in fact was jailed while the alleged rape occurred, resulted in a life sentence. The other two verdicts called for death.
After Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP had the two death sentences overturned, the men on death row were being transported back to the county jail. Sheriff McCall, infuriated at the verdict, was their driver. The two “attempted to escape,” while handcuffed together. He emptied his revolver into them. One was killed outright, and the other played dead, even when a deputy later fired a round from his pistol directly down into the man’s neck in an attempted coup de grace.
A change of venue to an adjoining county was allowed for the second trial, but the same judge presided and with the same prosecutor sat at the table for the prosecution. The guilty verdict and the death sentence were pre-ordained. The remaining defendant was offered life, if he admitted his guilt. Just as he had refused to admit guilt in that basement when he was bruised and bleeding, he refused the offer. Only a new governor, a national campaign by the NAACP, and a change of heart by the prosecutor, who had contracted a fatal disease, brought a commutation of his death sentence.
All details of the legal machinations, the dynamics of NAACP bureaucratic politics, and the larger social movement are fascinating, and highlight King’s skill as a storyteller. Marshall interrupted a poker game involving Justice Vinson and President Truman to have a stay of execution for one of the defendants signed by the justice. He attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania with the poet Langston Hughes and the musician Cab Calloway.
Marshall’s father and uncle had worked for the B&O railroad. Marshall himself worked briefly as a waiter in B&O dining cars. When he traveled south on the rails to pursue justice, he was treated by the Black staff as visiting royalty, always served the best bourbon and the finest cuts of meat. He received the same treatment when he stayed in private homes as he pursed his cases. This occurred with considerable regularity because hotels were often closed to him because of his race. In addition, in tense moments, his location in a private residence could be concealed or shifted for his safety.
All of this detail makes the book a great read. But, what is truly appalling and revealed in Devil in the Grove is the deep fear that filled each of those people of color and the progressives as they confronted the violent racism that permeated the atmosphere in rural Florida at that time. Some admitted that fear, succumbed to it, and eschewed public action.
Others felt that fear deeply, but they plowed forward thru what ranged from petty slights, through vicious antagonism expressed in hate mail, to episodes of careening out of town at high speed while being chased by carloads of men with lynching on their minds and anger in their hearts.
What I doubt that I have been able to communicate here is the truly bone-chilling nature of that race hatred and violence. The influence of the KKK was strong in central Florida, and its long, filthy arms stretched into its jails and courthouses. At that time in Florida, the alleged rape of a White woman by Black men meant torture, a lynching, or an execution, while the rape of a young Black woman by a White man, if it resulted in a conviction, meant a small fine.
Sheriff McCall’s fingerprints cover all the horrors in the Groveland case and countless other injustices. Amazingly, it was not until 1972 that he lost an election and his coveted place in the local power structure.
Violence has always been an element of our society. But, when that violence is part and parcel of the everyday operations of the “Justice” process, it is at its most frightening. The vulnerable have no refuge from the whims of their oppressors. Those who should be protecting them are the ones abusing them.
One can say all that is history long past, but one would be wrong. From the 1970s to the 1990s in Chicago, Commander Jon Burge and his men tortured over a hundred Black men to obtain confessions. Burge now lives in Florida and there he still receives his police pension. Chicago recently granted compensation, or reparations, to some of those men who were brutalized. Burge’s response was exactly what one might have expected from Sheriff McCall. Burge objected to the payments and called his victims “human vermin.” (http://chicago.suntimes.com/chicago-politics/7/71/527850/burge-breaks-silence-condemns-5-5-million-reparations-fund).
An Alabama police officer was recorded planning to murder a Black man, but he keeps his job. (http://www.dailykos.com/story/2015/08/04/1408699/-Alabama-Police-Officer-recorded-plotting-to-kill-a-black-man-calling-him-racial-slurs-keeps-job). If you need more convincing then scour Daily Kos, and you will find your proof (e.g., http://www.dailykos.com/story/2015/08/03/1408406/-Episcopal-Priest-on-road-trip-with-interracial-family-shares-harrowing-story-of-police-harassment).
American police seem to have concluded that with White people their best weapon is persuasion, while with Black men it is their pistol. With a history like the Groveland case, and all the others like it, in conjunction with what seems to be the regular killing of Black men by police, why should anyone today be surprised at the animosity of American Blacks toward police and the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The book, Devil in the Grove, is a powerful and frightening statement. It is powerful because it brings us deeply and artfully into a compelling life and death struggle that continues to this day. It is frightening because it lays bare the bones of racism and violence that remain part of the skeletal structure of American society.
King’s final phrase in the book’s sub-title, “Dawn of a New America,” may be the only phrase in the book that seems sadly empty.
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