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Nonfiction review: Devil in the Grove

The Associated Press
Published:   |   Updated: March 19, 2013 at 05:15 AM

"Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America," by Gilbert King, Harper

Why isn't there a Thurgood Marshall Day? As well as days for those other brave warriors who battled the evil of segregation in the days when speaking up, let alone striking back, could get you killed?

After reading Gilbert King's excellent book, "Devil in the Grove," on a little-known and horrifying incident in which four young black men were rounded up and accused of raping a white woman, readers cannot help being awed by the bravery of those who took a stand in the late 1940s and early 1950s. In those days, lynching was a common response to challenges to the white power structure.

That was especially true in Florida, where the citrus industry relied on cheap black labor. The industry also relied on Sheriff Willis V. McCall, a violent man feared by those he ruled, to keep that labor in line; a job McCall undertook with gruesome relish.

It was in that place and time that a white 17-year-old Groveland girl leveled the charge of rape, sparking a riot that drove blacks into hiding and saw many of their houses burned down after the lynching of the young black men who came to be known as "the Groveland boys" was foiled.

Marshall — known as "Mr. Civil Rights" after the landmark school segregation case Brown v. Board of Education and later a member of the U.S. Supreme Court — risked his life many times during his early battles.

As he rode in the Jim Crow section of one train or another headed south again, he often thought of the photos he had seen of lynched black men. In one of those photos, Marshall said it was not so much the sight of the dangling corpse, bullet holes clearly visible, it was the "angelic faces of the white children, all of them dressed in their Sunday clothes, as they posed, grinning and smiling in a semicircle" around the dangling corpse.

Marshall despaired of another generation growing up "without conscience (that would) prolong the agony of an entire, other race."

In "Devil in the Grove," King has written a gripping story that carries the reader along, to the point that some of the disturbing turning points deliver the shock of a crime thriller.

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