Review: ‘Devil in the Grove’ by Gilbert King

by Kim on April 9, 2012 · 13 comments

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Title: Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America
Author: Gilbert King
Genre: Nonfiction
Year: 2012
Acquired: From the publisher for review consideration
Rating: ★★★★★

Review: In 1951, just before he should have been preparing to argue arguably the most important civil rights case of the decade, Brown v. Board of Education, NAACP laywer Thurgood Marshall found himself in a perilous situation — riding a train into the deep South to defend one of four young African American citrus pickers that had been accused of raping a white girl in Groveland, Florida.

Already, two of the defendants were dead and one remained in the custody of the Groveland sheriff likely responsible for the death of his friends. Other lawyers and activists who had been part of the case had been threatened or killed. Yet Marshall, known across the county as “Mr. Civil Rights” couldn’t abandon the “Groveland Four” in their time of need. So he continued on road, not certain what awaited him when he would get off the train in a deeply divided Florida where average citizens struggled thanks to Jim Crow and the lawless nature of the people ostensibly in charge.

The Devil in the Grove is both a story of the Groveland Four and a portrait of a young Thurgood Marshall, a fearless and flawed laywer working to systematically dismantle the laws that oppressed African Americans in the South. Despite the description of the book as a “Southern Gothic tale,” I wasn’t expecting The Devil in the Grove to be as emotionally engaging (and frankly, outrageous) as it turned out to be. Author Giblert King has written a fantastic story filled with the sorts of flawed heroes and entirely despicable villains readers expect in the best thrillers, yet keeps the book firmly grounded in the reality of the Jim Crow South.

King’s portrait of Marshall isn’t overwhelmingly flattering, which I think is a good thing — Marshall could be arrogant and worked excessively (to the detriment of his family, including at least one instance of cheating on his ill wife). He had a drinking problem and was known for excessively crude humor. But it’s through Marshall’s flaws that I think you get to see the way he grew and evolved into the well-respected Supreme Court justice he would eventually become. It’s also because of his dedication to his work that the volume of case law needed to dismantle the most egregious civil rights ruling — separate but equal — was heard before the Supreme Court. It’s impossible not to admire Marshall, despite his flaws.

I also loved the way King was able to show the way race relations in the South were as much a result of embedded racism as they were about the economic realities of the time. He makes a pretty compelling argument that one of the reasons Groveland’s criminal sheriff, Willis McCall, was able to have such absolute power over the people of Groveland was that he had the support of the major businesses (citrus growers, mostly). And it’s not that those owners were deeply racist, just that they needed the African American workers to continue to work at their businesses. Racism was as much economics as it was personality, something that I hadn’t thought about before.

I highly recommend getting a copy of The Devil in the Grove if the subject seems at all interesting to you. King’s book filled me with so much outrage at the system, admiration for those who fought against it, and appreciation for the people who learned to think differently after seeing the case of the Groveland Four. That’s exactly what great nonfiction can, and should, do for readers.

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