This masterful and riveting non-fiction book is about one of the bravest men in the history of this country, who died on this day in history. The book is also a useful corrective to anyone who thought (from reading The Help, for instance) that Jim Crow America wasn’t so bad. Or worse, those who thought that what was described in The Help was as bad as it got.
Gilbert King, who has written about U.S. Supreme Court history for both The Washington Post and The New York Times, argues that by the mid-1940’s, Thurgood Marshall, the grandson of a mixed-race slave, “was engineering the greatest social transformation in American since the Reconstruction era.” With a rhetorical facility (“benighted towns billeting hostile prosecutors”) that transcends the sobering subject matter, King allows you to forget you are reading non-fiction, but he never allows you to forget you are reading a genuine horror story.
Thurgood Marshall and his colleagues in the Legal Defense Fund of the NAACP traveled throughout the South in the 1950’s, trying to fight white supremacy using the weapon of the Constitution. Marshall knew he could not win cases at the local or state level, so his goal became to establish firm grounds for appeals on record. If favorable rulings on equal protection could be obtained in higher courts, these precedents could then be used as additional building blocks for the rights of blacks.
The story of Marshall’s battle is told by a focus on one particular case, that of the Groveland Boys, which was, according to King:
…key to Marshall’s perception of himself as a crusader for civil rights, as a lawyer, willing to stand up to racist judges and prosecutors, murderous law enforcement officials, and the Klan in order to save the lives of young men falsely accused of capital crimes – even if it nearly killed him.”
And he was nearly killed a number of times.
The case of the Groveland Boys made national news at the time, and also had a significant impact upon the NAACP’s goals for future litigation. It took place in Florida, a state that somehow escaped the bad reputation attributed to Mississippi, Georgia, or Louisiana even though it had a higher per capital lynching rate. King notes:
In the postwar decade Florida would…prove to be a state with a boundless capacity for racial inhumanity, even by measure of the rest of the South…”
In Groveland, the Klan was populated by lawmen, and blacks had no hope of protection. So it was that when four young black men were arrested for the rape of a young white girl, in spite of the fact that no semen was found in her, or that two of the boys weren’t even in the area that night, a conviction and death penalty for all four boys was a foregone conclusion. Two of the young men were in the area, and they were World War II veterans, the object of particular rancor among white southerners since these veterans no longer were acting subservient enough.
The book describes the horrific events that surrounded this case, including the beatings of suspects and murder of three of them by the sheriff, who managed to remain in office until 1972 when he was finally suspended for kicking to death a mentally retarded black prisoner in his cell; the personal risks with their lives taken by all the defense lawyers; and the jaw-dropping injustice in the courtroom. It also enumerates the pressures on Marshall, who was simultaneously working on arguments for Brown v. Board of Education to be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. While desperate stays-of-execution were filed in the Groveland Case, Marshall was forced to respond to the Supreme Court’s order that all five of the segregation cases coalesced into Brown v. Board had to be reargued in terms of the statutory intent of the equal protection clause in the Fourteenth Amendment.
It’s an amazing story, and my respect for Marshall increased tremendously as a result of it.
Evaluation: This is a book that should be required reading. This horrifying, edge-of-your-seat tale really happened, and not that long ago. Its repercussions helped make the country what it is today. King, who unearthed FBI files that were under seal for sixty years, has done an outstanding job in telling this story which manages to be heart-breaking, inspiring, infuriating, and admirable all at once.
Published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2012
Note: This book won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction.