“Is it true that in Florida the word of a Negro means nothing when weighed against that of a white person?” These words were fateful when written, yet still have resonance today. They were penned in 1951 by Harry T. Moore, an unpaid coordinator for the NAACP in Florida to the then-governor, in protest at outrages surrounding the treatment of black suspects in a high-profile rape case. This was a significant case for the great Thurgood Marshall and the centerpiece for Gilbert King’s tirelessly researched new book, DEVIL IN THE GROVE.
"...tirelessly researched... Drawing on many sources, King, a Supreme Court historian, has brought Justice Marshall to life and revived old memories that die hard, especially since some of the same issues seem to have risen again, born anew in the 'old south.'"
African Americans Walter Irvin and Samuel Shepherd, both U.S. army veterans, stopped late on a hot summer night to help a white couple having car trouble. Those next few hours were the last that the two men would experience in freedom. For reasons never understood, petite, blond 17-year old Norma Padgett, a passenger in the car, accused Irvin, Shepherd and two other black men (one of them completely unknown to the others) of raping her that night. A doctor’s examination, not presented in the trial, revealed no evidence of sexual assault. Norma’s estranged husband, in whose car she was traveling, had gotten a thorough thrashing from Irvin and Shepherd after he insulted them when they were unable to fix his car. Norma’s first reports of the incident didn’t include any rape, nor did she appear at all upset that her husband might be lying gravely injured or dead by the roadside.
It seemed that the story had been cooked up by her husband and seized upon with unholy eagerness by Sherriff Willis McCall, a man who was heavily involved in the practice of debt peonage, which was legal in Florida at the time, allowing him to arrest any Negro for any reason whatsoever and force him to repay “legal fees” by working in the local citrus groves. McCall had “a tough reputation in the groves” and would use the full force of the law and his natural sadism in the Padgett case, beating or torturing confessions out of at least three of the defendants and later murdering one of them.
Thurgood Marshall, just beginning his legal career by working for the NAACP, took on the cause of the Groveland Four after all hell broke loose in Florida. The Ku Klux Klan stormed in, a posse shot one suspect, houses were burned, and black men fled as cattle trucks filled with angry white men brandishing rifles prowled the region. The story has several heroes, including the above-mentioned Moore, who was assassinated after protesting Sherriff McCall’s killing of Shepherd and attempted murder of Irvin. Newswoman Mabel Norris Reese, whose views on racial justice were swayed permanently and positively by her association with Marshall, became a supporter of the Four. The main villain in the case is obvious: In 1954, Willis McCall reacted to the Brown vs Board of Education case pleaded before the Supreme Court and won by Marshall, by helping to form the National Association for the Advancement of White People, an organization devoted with deadly seriousness to getting rid of “agitators” trying to enforce the law of the land.
The subtitle of DEVIL IN THE GROVE expresses the hope for the “dawn of a New America.” Drawing on many sources, King, a Supreme Court historian, has brought Justice Marshall to life and revived old memories that die hard, especially since some of the same issues seem to have risen again, born anew in the “old south.”
Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on April 27, 2012