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Devil in the Grove summary

Gilbert King

Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America

4.6 (10 ratings)
16 mins

Brief summary

Devil in the Grove by Gilbert King is a gripping true story about the wrongful conviction of four Black men in Jim Crow-era Florida. It sheds light on the institutional racism and the courage of those who fought against it.

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    Devil in the Grove
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    The start of all the trouble

    By the late 1940s, Thurgood Marshall had become a prominent figure in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for his efforts to dismantle Jim Crow laws. Initially, some colleagues were skeptical of him, but Marshall won them over with his sense of humor, commitment to equality, and exceptional legal skills. 

    He worked for the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund (LDF), taking on cases that highlighted racial inequality and had the potential to set legal precedents. However, Marshall avoided cases where the defendant was guilty. For example, when one of his subordinates brought him a case of a Black boy who’d been sentenced to ten years in prison just for stealing a bag of peanuts, Marshall’s investigation found that the case wasn’t a good one for the LDF – the boy had actually stolen a flatbed truck’s worth of peanuts, and hijacked the truck as well!

    In 1946, Marshall defended 25 Black individuals who were accused of rioting and attempted murder during the Columbia Race Riot trials. Despite facing a near-lynching himself, Marshall managed to secure the acquittal of 24 out of the 25 defendants. His relentless dedication to the case took a toll on his health, but he continued working from his hospital bed until the trials concluded. During this period, Marshall traveled between Harlem and the South for his work.

    The next year, a young white couple by the names of Norma and Willie Padgett encountered car trouble one night; as a result, they were stranded on a remote road in Florida. Two young Black veterans, Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvin, stopped to help but were met with racist insults – and Samuel punched Willie in reaction. What followed was a tragic series of events.

    The morning after Norma’s encounter with Shepherd and Irvin, she told a watchman by the name of Lawrence Burtoft that her husband had been assaulted and she’d been abducted by two Black men. He noted her oddly calm demeanor. Soon, the community was abuzz with a story of a young white farmwife abducted and raped by four Black men. Sheriff Willis McCall intervened to prevent a lynch mob and took Shepherd and Irvin into custody. Another Black teenager, Charles Greenlee, was also arrested simply for being out at night and carrying an unloaded gun, although he wasn’t involved in the incident in any way.

    Outside the prison, a mob gathered, and Charles was brutally coerced into falsely confessing to the rape. McCall was present but did nothing at the time. He had a history of mistreating local Black residents, but an earlier FBI investigation never found adequate evidence to convict him – the Black families involved fled the area after threats from local white residents regarding the case.

    In the days following Norma’s alleged assault, mobs swarmed the town. White vigilantes fired shots into Black homes and burned down Samuel Shepherd’s house. McCall failed to arrest these individuals, citing both concerns about further destabilizing the situation and his own business in investigating the case. Eventually, the governor called in the National Guard to try and prevent more violence.

    Meanwhile, Charles’s friend Ernest Thomas had fled town the night of the alleged attack, likely out of concern for his involvement in illegal gambling. McCall illegally tracked him down, and a massive manhunt ended with Ernest’s death in a swamp. Despite contradictory accounts, Norma identified Ernest as another of her attackers, and the coroner’s jury ruled his killing as lawful.

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    What is Devil in the Grove about?

    Devil in the Grove (2012) tells the true story of four young Black men falsely accused of rape in 1949 Florida. It follows lawyer Thurgood Marshall’s tireless efforts to save their lives in the face of racial hatred, obstruction, violence, and injustice at every turn. Ultimately, Marshall exposed devastating flaws in the case, achieving some semblance of justice despite a system aligned against the defendants. 

    Devil in the Grove Review

    Devil in the Grove (2012) is a powerful account of racial injustice and the courageous fight for civil rights in America. Here are three compelling reasons to read this book:

    • It uncovers the untold history of the Groveland Boys, exposing the dark underbelly of racial violence that plagued the South in the 1940s.
    • Through detailed research and interviews, the book provides a chilling portrayal of the legal system's corruption and the brutal reality faced by African Americans during this time.
    • With its narrative flair and gripping storytelling, the book engages readers, ensuring that the fight for justice and equality remains anything but boring.

    Who should read Devil in the Grove?

    • People interested in the Groveland case
    • Those curious about Thurgood Marshall’s legal career
    • Anyone who wants to learn more about the history of racial injustice in the US

    About the Author

    Gilbert King is an award-winning author whose works focus on race, civil rights, and criminal justice. He wrote, produced, and cohosted Bone Valley, a crime podcast set in central Florida in the 1980s. His other books include Beneath a Ruthless Sun and The Execution of Willie Francis.

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    Devil in the Grove FAQs 

    What is the main message of Devil in the Grove?

    The main message of Devil in the Grove is the fight against racial injustice and the importance of standing up for civil rights.

    How long does it take to read Devil in the Grove?

    The reading time for Devil in the Grove varies depending on the reader's speed. However, the Blinkist summary can be read in just 15 minutes.

    Is Devil in the Grove a good book? Is it worth reading?

    Devil in the Grove is a powerful book worth reading. It sheds light on a crucial moment in history and highlights the bravery of those who fought for justice.

    Who is the author of Devil in the Grove?

    Gilbert King is the author of Devil in the Grove.

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