Saturday, March 1, 2014

Author Gilbert King Discusses “Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys and the Dawn of a New America”

By John F. Kynes, Executive Director of the Hillsborough County Bar Association

An accusation of rape by a young white woman. A racist Southern sheriff. Four black men hauled to jail. Violence and the threat of lynchings by the Ku Klux Klan. Coerced confessions.  A rigged jury and a sham trial. A guilty verdict calling for the electric chair.

The storyline of John Grisham’s latest novel? In this case, tragically not.

It describes a sad but true episode in Florida’s history involving a horrific case of racial injustice. The story is outlined in meticulous detail by author Gilbert King in his book “Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys and the Dawn of a New America,” for which King was awarded the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction.

King discussed his book and answered questions from audience members at a luncheon and special CLE at the Chester H. Ferguson Law Center in February. The author came to Tampa from New York City at the invitation of Hillsborough County Bar President Susan Johnson-Velez and the HCBA’s Diversity Committee.

King said one of the motivations in writing the book was to help young people understand the Jim Crow era right after World War II and before the civil rights movement. Most young people aren’t aware of the level of oppression and “state-sanctioned white supremacy” that existed, King said.

The Groveland case itself and the stunning series of events surrounding it were set into motion in July 1949 when four young black men were accused of raping 17-year-old Norma Lee Padgett of Groveland, Fla., located in the heart of citrus country in Lake County. Three of the “Groveland Boys” ― Sam Shepherd, Walter Irvin and 16-year-old Charles Greenlee ― were apprehended and thrown in jail. A fourth, Ernest Thomas, fled and avoided arrest for several days until he was hunted down by a sheriff’s posse of 1,000 armed men and killed about 200 miles northwest in a chase through the swamps of Lake County.

The KKK quickly gathered and went to the jail. The angry mob threatened violence and called for the lynching of the accused men. After retreating, they took their anger out by burning homes in the black section of Groveland. National Guard troops were called in to restore order. 

Sheriff Willis McCall ― who reigned over Lake County with an iron fist ― and his deputies then systematically tortured the three remaining Groveland Boys to secure confessions. Only one, Irvin, refused to confess.
Meantime, national press accounts of the case and the intense local violence helped get the attention of Thurgood Marshall, who was then special counsel at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In his luncheon remarks, King said that by the late 1940s, Marshall, the future U.S. Supreme Court justice, had already helped cement his reputation as “Mr. Civil Rights” after logging many thousands of miles travelling by train to appear in Southern courtrooms.

The original trial was “basically a travesty,” King said, based in part on the lack of medical evidence presented, and that jurors were handpicked by the prosecution. The defendants, Shepherd and Irvin, were sentenced to death. Greenlee, because of his age, was sentenced to life in jail.

In 1951, after appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the verdict on grounds that blacks had been improperly excluded from the jury. Then a stunning turn of events occurred.

Sheriff McCall was transporting Shepherd and Irvin by himself in his vehicle for the retrial. He pulled off on a secluded road, claiming his vehicle was having tire trouble, and then proceeded to shoot the defendants, who were handcuffed together.

McCall, in a deposition afterward, said the prisoners tried to escape, and he had no choice but to shoot them both. One prisoner, Shepherd, died at the scene. The other, Irvin, played dead but survived.

The next day, Irvin shockingly recounted to FBI investigators in his hospital room that Sheriff McCall had shot them both without provocation. And, he continued, one of McCall’s deputies who had come to the scene had shot Irvin while he was on the ground after noticing he was still alive.

In the retrial in Marion County, Marshall personally represented Irvin, but the jury again found Irvin guilty. After appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately declined to hear the case.

The author also discussed the immense pressure after the trial in 1955 on newly elected Florida Governor LeRoy Collins to commute Irvin’s sentence to life in prison.

Spoiler alert: Collins did.

In announcing his decision, Governor Collins said, “The state did not walk that extra mile — did not establish the guilt of Walter Lee Irvin in an absolute and conclusive manner.”

King, in his luncheon remarks, also read a passage from his book about Marshall’s towering influence: “Southern juries might be stacked again blacks, and the judges might be biased, but Thurgood Marshall was demonstrating in case after case that their work was not the last, that in the U.S. Supreme Court the injustice in their decisions and verdicts could be reversed. … No wonder that across the South, in their darkest, most demoralizing hours, when falsely accused men sat in jails, when women and children stood before the ashy ruin of mob-torched home, the spirits of black citizens would be lifted with two words whispered in defiance and hope: ‘Thurgood’s coming.’”