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Jam packed with truth
on August 7, 2012
I don't often use the phrase "tour de force", but if it isn't applicable to this book, I don't know when it would be. Gilbert King has delivered a solid, in depth, thoroughly researched tome on not only one of the most brutal (although, sadly, little known) civil rights cases in American history, but also a thorough survey on the state of race relations in the American South in the late 1940s and early 1950s. For anyone who has ever wondered exactly what the "Southern Way of Life" is, you need look no further than this hate-fueled tale of widespread murder and mayhem.
In a surprisingly slim, albeit dense, 360 pages (of text, plus notes, etc.), King manages to paint a rich, detailed, sickening and enraging picture of Southern "justice" in the Sunshine State. The unsupported word of a white woman (girl, really, whom few really believe) and that of her drunken on-again, off-again husband launch a series of events that leave two young black men dead - one hunted like a dog, the other shot in cold blood - along with two more wrongfully jailed, one on death row. Along the way we witness the racial intimidation and violence of the KKK, the death by firebombing of civil rights leader Harry T. Moore, and the slow turning of the wheels of justice in the nation's highest court. Also along the way we meet the prosecutor, Jesse Hunter, who comes to believe in the innocence of the "Groveland Boys", yet who prosecutes them anyway; the born and bred Southern journalist Mabel Norris Reese whose slow change of heart gets her labeled a "pinko"; and the Southern sheriff in charge of it all, Willis McCall.
But most of all we meet the men who stood up and dared to fight back, sacrificing family, health and safety to do so - Charles Hamilton Houston, Franklin Williams, and main character future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Gilbert does not shy away from these men's faults; they had their fair share of internal squabbles and personality conflicts, and Marshall at least was a hard-drinker who wasn't exactly faithful in marriage. Nevertheless, despite not being saints, these men put it all on the line and they, among many other civil rights crusaders, deserve the lion's share of the credit for the advances in justice and equality. As head of the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund, Marshall was involved in many facets of civil rights law, from criminal cases involving wrongfully accused blacks to segregation cases at schools and universities, to his most famous case (or, really, collection of cases), Brown v. the Board of Education. But the Groveland case, little know though it is, ,was probably Marshall's most formative case, and the one he took most personally.
If you like epic tales of good vs. evil, this is your book. If you like edge of your seat thrillers, this is your book. If you like stories with genuine, three-dimensional characters, this is your book. (Note: I would say "believable characters", but Sheriff McCall, his henchmen and supporters are so wildly extreme that, were they characters in a fiction book, they would be deemed unbelievable.) You will bite your fingernails to the nub worrying for the Groveland Boys and cheering for Marshall, his team of lawyers and other sympathizers as they risk their lives in the hostile territory south of the South. You'll witness false accusations, evidence tampering, forced confessions, threats of and actual violence, jury stacking, witness tampering, and nearly every form of legal malpractice in the single-minded goal of protecting the "Flower of Southern Womanhood" and securing "justice" against the "perpetrators". But be warned, if you like nice, tidy, happily-ever-after good-defeats-evil stories, this is not your book. This is a tale of senseless violence and oppression. The story of the deaths of three innocent black youths in the prime of their otherwise promising lives. It's the story of the deaths of a civil rights leader and his wife, and the violence and intimidation against countless others. It's the story of the Teflon sheriff who ruled Lake County for another twenty years, despite countless other accusations of misconduct and corruption.
But this isn't even just the story of the "Groveland Boys" case. It is the story of the world's emerging superpower, the beacon of justice and democracy to the world, and how that superpower turned a blind eye to the injustices routinely inflicted on black citizens throughout the Jim Crow South. In addition the Groveland case, Gilbert King recounts dozens of similar and related cases from all over the South. From race riots to lynchings to rape to discrimination of all types, King puts the lie to the oft-repeated protest of the South that it was Northern/NAACP/communist/etc. agitators who stirred up otherwise peaceful Southern race relations. And no, things weren't always rosy in the North either, but Marshall and his colleagues didn't fear for their lives, and when black butler Joseph Spell was accused of raping his white employer, he received a fair trial and was acquitted in Connecticut, something that could not and did not happen below the Mason-Dixon line.
If you need a silver lining to an otherwise very dark cloud, it comes from the fact that the very barbarity of this and similar cases paved the way for justice to slowly trickle in. There is, perhaps, a limit to the inhumanity that human nature will bear, and as publicity of these kinds of cases grew, so too did public outrage. Like Mabel Norris Reese, Americans North and South began rethinking their deeply held beliefs regarding race and race relations. At the same time, the diligent and careful legal work of people like Houston and Marshall began setting enough precedents that by 1954 cases like Brown v. the Board of Education could overturn the legal framework supporting Jim Crow. These changes came too late to save Ernest Thomas, Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvin (and to save co-defendant Charles Greenlee from an undeserved stint at hard labor), but they came in time to see Thurgood Marshall promoted to the highest court in the land, where he presided over an unparalleled period of civil rights growth in the nation's history.
This book should be required reading for high school and college students, as well as adults. Now that we have our first black president, there are those who would whitewash the struggles it took to get here and deny that there is much left to improve. Power of the kind wielded by Sheriff Willis McCall and supported by like-minded people as well as decent but unthinking people doesn't cede easily and, when forced out, it looks for ways to turn public opinion back to itself and restore itself to its "rightful" place. It is important that all Americans know the truth about where the struggle began and how much it has cost to right the wrongs of the past I order that we not fall prey to the same mindset that caused such oppressive division in the first place. Gilbert King has done us a great service by providing this rich and detailed history of one of the darkest chapters in our history so that this "post-racial" world can learn from history and not repeat it.