Review: Devil in the Grove by Gilbert King
Title: Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America
Author: King, Gilbert
Length: 359 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction, History
Publisher / Year: Harper / 2012
Source: From the publisher for review.
Why I Read It: History and law in the civil rights era – sounded like just my thing!
Date Read: 10/03/12
Even for a reader who was more aware of the realities of life in the Jim Crow era, and as a reader who has been reading non-fiction accounts of that time, this book still shocked and appalled me again and again. This book focuses mainly on Thurgood Marshall who worked with the NAACP arguing various cases around the country, the most well known of course being Brown vs Board which basically tore down any justification states had for segregated schools. The focus of this book isn’t that case (though it and various others are mentioned throughout), but the focus is rather the case of the Groveland Boys in Florida.
The Groveland Boys were four young African American men accused of raping a white woman. Two of the men weren’t even in the area at the time of the accused crime, and the other two were also innocent, but framed for various other reasons. Through the highlighting of this case, King gives an overview of Marshall’s life and discusses why criminal, and especially rape, cases like this one were so important to him. They proved a way to change opinions and prove the injustice in the law, especially as it was used to keep down the population.
Through the book it is easy to see the gross injustices faced by African Americans throughout the south, and the dangers they lived through every day. It showed how brutal life could really be, but how they lived through and despite that, but the effects that it had on opinions and options.
One complaint that I had with the book is that I found it jumped around quite a bit, especially in the beginning chapters, between laying out the crime and start of the case and between Marshall’s life and earlier cases. Having so little knowledge of Marshall to start with I found it confusing the way it was laid out here and thought it could have been smoother if King had stuck to a purely time-line based structure for the narrative.
My last, and largest, issue was with the case itself. Here we have four young men charged with rape, and because we know all the facts and because King can lay out more than was aware at the trial, we know that the men are innocent. However, in arguing the case and working to prove the innocence of the men on trial, what is often brought up (by King and by the actual participants) is facts such as the lack of physical evidence, the fact that the doctor couldn’t conclusively say it was rape, the fact that her story changed from when she first spoke with someone after the alleged incident and when it was reported. While all of these matter… we are talking about rape and all of these facts play into misconceptions that simply fuel our rape culture and make it next to impossible for women to actually receive justice in rape cases now. Clearly current and past can’t be compared, and in that case she was lying, it is difficult to read books that include such myths nonetheless. I would argue that in this case the full evidence proved their innocence more than any myths do – stories changing and doctors deciding clearly aren’t necessary.
In all, a very important and necessary book. While I wish it (and society) were able to more clearly understand the way rape happens, it is still a book that should be required reading for all. We all need to know more about this period in history, and brushing it over as if it didn’t happen – or pretending that it was not nearly as bad as it was – does not help anyone.