Reading about Race: Devil in the Grove by Gilbert King

This summer I read several powerful books about race that I’d encourage everyone to read, particularly if you’re interested in U.S. history and racism.  In my last post, I wrote about Caste by Isabel Wilkerson.  After Caste, I read Gilbert King’s Devil in the Grove, a Pulitzer Prize winner that describes racism and the justice system in the U.S. following World War II. The book focuses on the trial of four black men in Groveland, Florida, accused of the rape of a white woman. It’s also a biography of Thurgood Marshall’s early work as a prominent NAACP attorney who was widely known as “Mr. Civil Rights”. 

Thurgood Marshall is one of my heroes and the reason I went to law school. Despite the two large biographies sitting on my shelves, I actually know fairly little about him beyond the groundbreaking Brown v. Board of Education and its aftermath.  This book is about the years leading up to Brown, and I found it fascinating. I was particularly interested to learn more about the NAACP’s work in general and their long-term legal strategy in selecting cases that would result in Supreme Court decisions banning segregation.

I was also interested to learn more about Marshall the person.  This book doesn’t spend as much time on Marshall as I expected, but it does make clear that while Marshall was a brilliant and dedicated attorney, he was not such a good husband.  As with many great figures, his personal life took a back seat to his work. 

Like Caste, this book presented a fairly comprehensive history of the racism of the time, and I was disturbed by its unflinching descriptions of lynching and torture.  King’s book focuses on racial violence in the early part of the twentieth century.  In particular, he writes about the impact that serving in World War I and II had on race relations.  Black men served overseas and, even though segregated and often unrecognized, they developed relationships across troops and with people from other countries. They returned to the U.S., proud of their uniforms and their service to their country.  Tragically, white people reacted badly to black men whose heads were held higher than when they left. Their response was lynching and a campaign of terror designed to put black people back in their places.

Both Caste and Devil in the Grove tell of one incidence of lynching that stood out among the many horrifying stories. It involves a young black boy who sent out some Christmas cards, including one with a handwritten note to a white girl.  His expression of friendship was taken badly by the girl and her father, and when he tried to explain his meaning, things got even worse. As a result of a kind gesture, the boy and his father were tied up and taken out to a lake. Then the boy was made to jump into the lake at gunpoint while his father had to watch his son die.

This story is only one, and not nearly the most gruesome, described in these two books. While I understood lynching as mob violence, I actually didn’t realize that white people held parties at lynchings; they brought their children and celebrated, they took photos and mailed them as postcards to their relatives and put trophies on their mantles. I keep thinking I know the history and then I realize how very much I don’t know.

Of all the lynching photos Marshall had seen, though, it was the image of Rubin Stacy strung up by his neck on a Florida pine tree that haunted him most when he traveled at night into the South. It wasn’t the indentation of the rope that had cut into the flesh below the dead man’s chin, or even the bullet holes riddling his body, that caused Marshall, drenched now in sweat, to stir in his sleep. It was the virtually angelic faces of the white children, all of them dressed in their Sunday clothes, as they posed, grinning and smiling, in a semicircle around Rubin Stacy’s dangling corpse. In that horrid indifference to human suffering lay the legacy of yet another generation of white children, who, in turn, would without conscience prolong the agony of an entire other race.

Gilbert King, Devil in the Grove

Most readers will not be surprised by the violence and ugliness that occurred in Florida. King explains how the economy of the area, particularly that of citrus growers, incentivized the local government to basically force black people to work in the groves under terrible conditions.  Like Caste, King reinforces the systemic nature of racism, in that law enforcement and the criminal justice system support and maintain these practices, not just corrupt individuals. 

This book is part biography, part history, and part legal thriller as it goes into deep detail in the Groveland case.  It describes the racist sheriff of the town, his police thugs who tortured the accused until they confessed, and the many investigative failures in the case.  It covers in great detail the strategies of the prosecution and defense, the appeals process, jury selection, evidentiary procedures, and sentencing.  And most importantly, there is the shocking story of what happens to each of the four young men who are accused. 

Sadly, this is one of those “you couldn’t make this up” kinds of stories.  It was shocking and devastating on so many levels. 

This is a fantastic book, although I had one criticism. I didn’t always like the way King wrote about Norma Padgett, the alleged victim of the rape. King argues that the defense should have gone after the victim for her promiscuity, her relationship problems with her husband, and her calm demeanor after the alleged rape. While I’m not condoning Padgett (or any false accuser), these are strategies that are frequently and unfairly used against victims of rape. For example, while Norma didn’t seem traumatized after the alleged rape, we know enough about trauma to know that a woman might be brutally raped and still seem calm afterwards (see, for example, the excellent movie Unbelievable). And blaming a woman’s promiscuity or marital problems as evidence that rape didn’t happen just promotes misogynistic ideas about women and rape. I understand that those might be strategies the defense could have used, but King should have also noted why they are problematic.

Padgett doesn’t come off in King’s narrative as entirely callous, though she also never seems remorseful. King suggests that she was likely pressured by her husband and family, and she almost certainly suffered in an abusive marriage from which she had little recourse. Of course none of that excuses a false accusation but it did make me want to understand what happened.

A note of thanks to Cathy, whose 20 Books of Summer challenge prompted me to read these books I’d been wanting to read for so long. I’m also calling this book a biography for my Reading Nonfiction challenge.

  10 comments for “Reading about Race: Devil in the Grove by Gilbert King

  1. August 20, 2021 at 2:00 pm

    Yes, often reality exceeds fiction and in this connection clearly not in a good way. The stories you mention are absolutely horrifying and gruesome. Important book, but doesn’t sound like pleasant reading.

  2. August 22, 2021 at 6:49 pm

    Fantastic post. Well written, thoughtful, and helpful. It is difficult to read about such horrific situations in our country, but it is so necessary to be aware of our past and present. Having read Warmth of Other Suns, I knew about Florida’s treatment of the citrus works, which I hadn’t known before.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Well done.

    • August 23, 2021 at 8:53 pm

      Thank you Jane! I appreciate your kind words, since it’s difficult to write about books like this. I found it devastating, but I do think it’s important.

  3. September 3, 2021 at 7:41 am

    A very thoughtful review, thanks for sharing

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