The book is Devil in the Grove, by Gilbert King. A 2013 Pulitzer Prize winner for Non-Fiction, Devil in the Grove tells the story of a criminal trial in the Jim Crow South. In 1949, in Groveland, Florida, four black men were accused of rape — the so called “Groveland Four.” Events quickly spun out of control in that segregated and rural county. An angry mob killed one of the men before he was arrested. The mob destroyed several homes in the black section of town, while Sherriffs’ Deputies stood by, watching the houses burn. The surviving three men were then arrested. Sheriffs’ Deputies beat those men, trying to make them say something incriminating. Before the criminal trial started, the local newspaper called for the men to be sentenced to death in the electric chair. The Prosecutors withheld exculpatory evidence, and a one-sided trial quickly resulted in convictions. The U.S. Supreme Court then overturned those convictions. Just few weeks later, the Sheriff killed one the men while he was in custody awaiting his retrial. After the retrial, another conviction followed. Years later, the Governor of Florida commuted the sentence for one of the Groveland Four, finding that he was already in jail on another charge when the supposed rape occurred.
The book is a shocking account of the broken justice system in the mid-Twentieth Century South. It is more shocking because the weight of the evidence shows that no rape ever occurred.
Through all of this, the hero of the story is Thurgood Marshall. Long before his days on the U.S. Supreme Court, while he was still a lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Marshall led the defense of the Groveland Four. Marshall stood for those men against impossible odds, facing great personal danger. With courage and skill, Marshall’s team fought for justice for the Groveland Four. And they fought for justice when no one else would. Marshall’s team had limited success in that case. But their work was part of a larger campaign against the violent racism of that lynch-mob era. And the Groveland Four case foreshadowed many of the civil rights victories that followed in the 1950s and 1960s.
Devil in the Grove reads like a reminder for all of us who hold a law license: We advocate for clients who cannot advocate for themselves, for whatever reason. Our cases may be nothing like the Groveland Four case. And, to be sure, nothing today is like the broken justice system from the 1940s. But whenever we stand up in Court — “Good Morning, Your Honor, Thomas Doyle for _________” — we have a moment to pause and remember. Each of us is blessed and lucky that we get to be the champion for someone else.