An article in yesterday’s LA Times about the ‘Groveland Four’ being exonerated (they are all dead) caught my eye. I happened to have just finished reading a great book about the case: Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America. The article states: “Gilbert King, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his 2012 book about the case, Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America, attended the Monday hearing with Thurgood Marshall Jr., the son of the NAACP lawyer and future U.S. Supreme Court justice who defended Irvin during his second trial.”
Devil in the Grove is about Thurgood Marshall, pre-Brown v. Board of Education. The major action begins in 1946, when Black veterans, having come home from fighting in WW II, were beaten in the streets if they dared wear their uniforms. The book has a lot of background on various work the NAACP was doing at the time, particularly research for equity and integration in schools. However, as indicated in the title, its main subject is the work of Marshall and others in a Groveland, FL case of rape accusation, an accusation against four Black men that was clearly false. A case that had all the elements of systemic racism, corruption, lying, and cheating that you could imagine. Every single one in a single case. The corrupt, murderous (and likely criminally involved in a gambling ring) Sheriff McCall feels like a caricature, and, yet, he is all too real.
I didn’t start this on purpose thinking of the current trials—the Rittenhouse shame and the Arbery case. It’s an audiobook I bought quite a while ago and forgot I had. (I buy a lot more books than I can read and sometimes find titles in my own personal backlist.) I found it when I was searching ‘unread titles’ on Audible. But the Rittenhouse case and the Arbery murders were being conducted as I went through the book. That this particular case took place in 1949 is relevant now. Sadly, there are moments when I was thinking “seventy-five years ago or today?”
As it won the Pulitzer Prize, it’s probably evident that this is a great book. But now is a particularly consequential moment to read it as much of the subject matter plays out in our national news and is debated in our legislative bodies. The reader also learns about heroic people who are not as well known as Thurgood Marshall. The story of Harry T. Moore, executive director of the Florida NAACP, is particularly tragic. When he calls for the arrest of Sheriff McCall for the murder of one of the Groveland Four, his house is firebombed by (never found) KKK members on Christmas Night 1951.
High School Housekeeping: Devil in the Grove is an important book because it tells the story of a representative injustice, one not taught or discussed in school. It’s adult nonfiction that I recommend for high school students.