Tuesday, April 10, 2012

"Devil In the Grove" by Gilbert King (2012)

Gilbert King has written a wonderful account of Thurgood Marshall's most active years in the Civil Rights Movement. From the early 1940's, and on into the early 1950's, Thurgood Marshall traversed the back roads of the Deep South, searching for, and rooting out Jim Crow, root by root. Although the book is centered on the "Groveland Boys" Case in 1949, the book is all encompassing in its scope.

Thurgood Marshall was the victim of a kidnap plot in 1949, just at the height of his fight against the Jim Crow laws in the South. While working with the NAACP on the broader issues concerning educational opportunities, and preparing a defense against the Supreme Courts stated policy of Separate but Equal (Plessy V. Ferguson), Mr. Marshall became involved in a case in Florida, not twenty miles, and only twenty three years removed from the infamous Rosewood massacre of the 1920's. It was about to happen all over again.

Briefly, the case involved a young married white couple. Norma and Willie Padgett had been married the year before, but had been separated for a few months; she was 17 and he was 23 at the time of the "incident". On a hot night in July of 1949, the Padgett’s were out together, drinking, when their old car became stuck in the sand. They flagged down the first car which passed. That car contained two young African-American men, Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvin, both veterans of the Second World War. They got behind the Padgett's car and attempted to free it. The car would not budge, sinking instead, further into the sand. Willie Padgett became enraged with the two men and berated them in the most vile of racial terms. Norma offered the men a swig from the whiskey bottle as a way to ease the tension. She then made the mistake of offering it back to her husband, who said, "Do you think that I'm gonna drink behind a nigger?"

That was the straw which broke the camel’s back. Samuel Shepherd became angry at Willie Padgett's outburst, and grabbing him by the front of his shirt, a struggle ensued. Soon, Willie Padgett was lying unconscious in the road. The two would be Good Samaritans fled the scene. Norma was found wandering the road several hours later, strangely composed for someone who had just been raped and thought her husband had been killed.

The die had been cast; and there was trouble coming. By mid-morning the entire county was up in arms over the "white girl who was raped". The fact that there was no physical evidence of the crime did not stop the white population from rising up, along with the aid of the Ku Klux Klan, who came from as far away as Georgia. For several days, and nights, after the incident, Lake County was in flames, just as Rosewood had been only a few decades earlier.

With great skill, the author takes you through the history of segregation in Florida, and the labor shortages engendered by the Second World War. That labor shortage helped to keep in place a system so closely resembling slavery, that it rattles the mind.

Just as after the First World War, many African-Americans believed that once they got back home, things would be different. They had fought, and died, along with white Americans, and expected to be afforded the elusive equality which they had sought for so long. But some things never change, and that included the laws, and attitudes, of the people in Florida. After beating "confessions" from the two defendants, and adding two other names to the indictment, one of whom was deceased, and another who was not even present at the crime, the trial was scheduled for September 2nd, 1949; less than 8 weeks away.

The jury was all white, and the judge was Truman Futch, known as the "Whittlin' Judge" for the cedar sticks he whittled while listening to the case. You might say that the defendants never had a chance.

The NAACP argued cases in the lower courts with the expectation of losing the trials. This was a strategy designed to have the case overturned by the Supreme Court. Therefore, the prosecutor did not enter the coerced "confessions" into evidence, and the defense did not dwell on those documents. If the prosecution had entered them as evidence, they could be challenged. And of course, the defense did not want the "confessions" admitted at all. The Florida trial, as expected, was lost. The defense appealed the conviction in the Supreme Court, where it ws heard two years later, and the convictions overturned.

This is an all-encompassing read, which explores the racial attitudes and customs of the state of Florida at the time these events took place. The author does a superb job in describing the racial tensions which permeated the Jim Crow South of the time. The fear in which the African-American population was forced to live is palpable in his hands. He also gives some interesting background on the labor-convict system which was in place at the time. These arrangements allowed the Sheriffs, and the Counties, to make serious money by conscripting prisoners for work, with the proceeds going into the pockets of the officials involved, as well as creating increased profits for the companies which made use of the system.

More than just a book about the "Groveland Boys", this is also a very insightful biography of Thurgood Marshall's years as a Civil Rights attorney in the days leading up to the landmark "Little Rock" school desegregation case in 1954. The history of Jim Crow laws in America is a shameful one, which makes it all the more important to read about it, and hopefully understand its lessons.

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