Reflections on “Devil in the Grove”
Mary Clemons, October 9, 2018
Last night I attended the Women’s Voices racial justice book club discussion of Gilbert King’s Devil in the Grove, a Pulitzer Prize-winning book about Thurgood Marshall and a case he worked on as a lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. He defended “the Groveland boys,” who were accused of raping a white woman in the orange grove area of Lake County, Florida. The book revealed facts many of us didn’t know—not only about the innocent boys’ long ordeal but also about our nation’s history and Thurgood Marshall’s enormous influence.
I always knew that he was responsible for the Brown v. Board of Education case ending legal segregation, but I had no idea of his long road to get the case before the Supreme Court. From the book and two short videos available on Amazon Prime, I learned that Marshall worked on several cases that integrated law schools. He used the clever argument that a university which had no law school for blacks was violating the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling that allowed separate but equal facilities. Then, by driving through the South and talking to black K-12 teachers and their students, he and his LDF team accumulated enough evidence to bring the whole issue of black education to the Supreme Court in the Brown case.
And sometimes Marshall and the NAACP took on cases of black men accused of rape. They considered a case successful when the all-white jury gave a life sentence rather than the usual death penalty. Subsequently, Marshall would be able to appeal the verdict on legal violations he documented during the trial. His successful appeals helped raise money for the NAACP’s work by gaining both Southern blacks’ support and publicity in the North.
When they came to the South in the 1940s and 1950s, the black lawyers literally risked their lives. They would ride in car trunks so they couldn’t be seen and stay in safe houses, sometimes moving three times a night. One time as Marshall was leaving a Tennessee town with fellow lawyers, police who were angry that they had obtained favorable verdicts for their clients, stopped their car. They handcuffed Marshall, hustled him into their car, and told his companions to drive away. Fortunately, the lawyers turned around and followed down a dirt road. When the police car stopped where a lynch mob was waiting, the lawyers got out of their car and refused to leave without Marshall, saving his life.
I learned that Florida had more lynchings than any other state and that McCall, the “devil in the grove” who murdered one of the Groveland boys and almost beat them to death on several occasions, was reelected to his position through the 1970s! By Florida law enacted to secure needed laborers in the orange groves, blacks could be arrested and fined if they didn’t show up for work.
Women’s Voices member Karon Hatchett made our discussion even more interesting when she spoke from personal experience. She grew up in North St. Louis in a family heavily involved in NAACP work; her father and his cousin were civil rights attorneys and acquainted with Thurgood Marshall. Her father, Morris Hatchett, a Tuskegee airman and JAG officer, was targeted by resentful whites, as were Marshall and other successful black men throughout the South, especially those in uniform. Driving through Texas wearing his captain’s uniform, he had an unfortunate encounter that mirrored the Groveland mens’ experience. Hatchett was accosted by a gang of white men at a gas station who mistook his light-complexioned wife (Karon’s mother) for a white woman. Karon’s mother managed to convince the men that she was Negro, while persuading her husband not to retaliate or escalate the situation and to “think about the children.”
We all questioned why more children, black and white, aren’t taught about Thurgood Marshall, a hero who won 29 of his 32 cases argued before the Supreme Court, became the first black Supreme Court justice, was called “the Founding Father of the New America,” and achieved civil rights progress equal to Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.
As I reflect on how much I now know about racism, its history in the United States, its effects on the social justice of poverty, housing, education, and the criminal justice system, I credit Women’s Voices many programs and the racial justice book club. What I have absorbed gives me the background to have empathy and be an activist for justice. Marshall said that you can legislate equality, that “laws not only provide concrete benefits, they can even change the hearts of men – some men anyway – for good or evil.” I believe that Women’s Voices, through its programs and book club, can educate for equality and change hearts and minds! Please join us in the process.