Arguably the most important American lawyer of the 20th century, Thurgood Marshall was on the verge of bringing the landmark suit Brown versus Board of Education when he became embroiled in an explosive and deadly case that threatened to change the course of the civil rights movement and cost him his life. Author Gilbert King's new book Devil in the Grove, published later this month by HarperCollins, is the definitive biography of the young Marshall before he came to nationwide prominence by arguing Brown and a tale of his involvement in a now forgotten capital rape case that was held far from the Supreme Court, in a sweltering court house in a Klan-infested rural Florida county. King did much of his research in the Library's Wertheim Study and at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and he was further assisted by the staff of ASK NYPL.
In 1949, Florida's orange industry was booming and the citrus barons got rich off the back of cheap Jim Crow labor. To maintain order and profits, they turned to Willis versus McCall, a violent sheriff who ruled Lake County with murderous resolve. When a white 17-year-old girl cried rape, McCall was fast on the trail for four young black men who dared to envision a future for themselves beyond the Florida groves. One of these men was shot to death in a Florida swamp by McCall.
And so began the chain of events that would bring Marshall, the man later known as "Mr. Civil Rights," into the deadly fray. Associates thought it was suicidal for him to wade into the "Florida Terror" (Florida had at that time the highest lynching rate in the South, and bombings and shootings of anyone connected with the Civil Rights movement were frequent).
Two of the other defendants stood trial (after a 16-year-old defendant plead guilty the FBI and State Prison officials took photographs of the scars on his body after a coerced confession, but did not publicly disclose them. He was sentenced to hard labor for life). These remaining defendants were then convicted and sentenced to death for rape, then a capital crime in Florida (as it was throughout the South), that was almost solely imposed on black defendants. NAACP Legal Defense Fund attorneys under Marshall succeeded in reversing the initial guilty verdict in the U.S. Supreme Court. However, the two men were then remanded back to Lake County where they were shot (one fatally) "while trying to escape the custody" of Sheriff McCall. The last remaining defendant would then stand for re-trial and be personally represented by Marshall.
Devil in the Grove stands out for its outstanding research and the skill of its composition, which permits the book to function as a biography of the young Marshall and reflect his early civil rights work, while at the same time cutting back to the events in Lake County and making it read like a crime thriller. King's research drew on a wealth of material that included the FBI's un-redacted case files. King was the first writer to obtain unprecedented access to the NAACP LDF's previously closed files on this case. He also interviewed former NAACP LDF attorney Jack Greenberg, who at 87 years of age, is the sole surviving counsel from that case. King obtained access to the self-published memoirs of the racist sheriff, preserved by a tiny Florida college (all previous writers had been denied access on the grounds of its deteriorated condition) and located past media coverage by an award-winning journalist for a leftist New York newspaper by using the Microforms Division at The New York Public Library. (The New York Times consigned coverage of the first trial to pages 33 and 44, while the (then liberal) New York Post skipped it entirely). King will read from his book on Tuesday, March 13 at 6:30 p.m. in South Court Auditorium at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. The event is free and open to the public.