A gross miscarriage of justice, and a hero of jurisprudence, were front and center during a special virtual gathering that engaged UB School of Law students with the Pulitzer Prize-winning author who chronicled it all.
The Sept. 30 event was organized by the law school's Legal Analysis, Writing and Research program, along with the law school’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Students and other attendees heard author Gilbert King present on Devil in the Grove, his meticulously researched account of a 1949 criminal case against four young Black men, the “Groveland Boys,” accused of sexually assaulting a white woman in Lake County, Florida.
Devil in the Grove, which was required reading for this year’s incoming class of law students, also details Thurgood Marshall’s role as an NAACP lawyer in the Groveland case as well as in other landmark civil rights cases that he pursued before becoming a U.S. Supreme Court justice.
Introduced by Tolu Odunsi, assistant dean for diversity, equity and inclusion and a LAWR instructor, King led his audience deeper into the case and Marshall’s activist history. In anecdotes and evocative black-and-white pictures, he made clear that conditions for people of color, particularly in the South, were “not just rude and inconvenient” – the separate water fountains, theaters and hotels – but reflected real brutality and terrorism by white supremacists in power.
“For the longest time we’ve been sweeping this idea of white supremacy under the carpet,” King said. “The narrative of race relations in America is extraordinarily unpleasant, and we’ve never come to terms with it.”
For example, he pointed to a wave of lynchings across the South immediately after World War II, targeting returned Black soldiers who demanded respect by continuing to wear their military uniforms. In a celebrated case, a Black man named Isaac Woodard lost his sight after he was dragged off a bus in South Carolina and severely beaten by sheriff’s deputies. Folksinger Woody Guthrie wrote a song about him, and Woodard “really became the face of the brutality that was happening in the South,” King said.
Into this atmosphere stepped Marshall – himself nearly killed by a lynch mob after he won a case in Columbus, Ohio – and the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund. Marshall would take on death penalty cases in the South, armed, as he said, with “nothing but a piece of paper – the Constitution.” The risk was so great that he was often moved from house to house at night to evade threatening Ku Klux Klansmen.
In the Groveland case in central Florida, 17-year-old Norma Padgett alleged she was sexually assaulted by four Black men. One of the four arrested was shot dead after he fled into a swamp; the other three were tried and convicted, and two were sentenced to death.
Marshall’s genius, King argued, was in accepting that he was likely to lose at trial, but ensuring that the inevitable procedural errors and inequities were so thoroughly documented that they would be sure to prevail upon appeal. The strategy worked – the Supreme Court overturned the Groveland convictions – but, in a horrifying abuse of power, Sheriff Willie McCall shot two of them after ordering them out of his patrol car on a dark country road. One died; one survived to tell what happened, but the sheriff was never charged.
The FBI investigated, King said, and a memo was issued saying that the sheriff and his deputy should be prosecuted, but the U.S. Attorney in Tampa quashed it to preserve the “tranquility of the South.” “That really speaks to the level of violence and complicity at every single level of Florida government,” King said. “It tells you about how embedded white supremacy was in Florida law enforcement.”
He said Marshall talked about the Groveland case in his nationwide travels, raising lots of money that went into the NAACP’s preparation for the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case.
Much of the question-and-answer part of the event focused on Thurgood Marshall, whom the book portrays as a flawed individual, but also a consummate, passionate and committed lawyer. “I could not find one corner that Marshall cut anywhere,” King remarked. “He said, ‘We can’t afford to make one single mistake. If we make one mistake, they can shut this down.’ He felt they really needed to be 100 percent on the up-and-up.
“And he always said, ‘These are the facts, this is the Constitution. The Constitution clearly says there is equality, there is due process, there is equal justice under law, and if we’re ignoring that we’re ignoring the Constitution.’ ”
“I was really interested in what he had to say,” said first-year student Daniel Russell, who moderated the question period. “I went into law school to do similar work and for a similar reason, to help effect equality on all levels. Thurgood Marshall always thought law was the best way to do that.”
For second-year student Shakierah Smith, a LAWR writing fellow and Thurgood Marshall fan who initially invited King to speak to the LAWR classes, hearing the author’s story firsthand really brought the Groveland case to life.
“His presentation was eye-opening and emotional and necessary, especially given the current state of race relations in America,” Smith said. “The criminal justice system has definitely come a long way, but we still have an even longer way to go, especially with regards to law enforcement and people of color.
“For law students, there is really no excuse for failure. It’s just motivation to keep going.”