The Book I Read

I finally read a book that’s been in the queue. Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America

As side note, I’ll mention that I heard about this right after the book won the Pulitzer last year and was alerted to a local-boy-makes-good story in one of the upstate NY papers, sent to me by my mom. The author (Gilbert King) and I were in the same graduating class in high school. That combination was enough of a nudge to get me to buy it.

It’s a horrific tale of the pervasiveness of racism in our not-too-distant past, and the involvement of Thurgood Marshall in the case allows for his compelling story to be told as well, along with others involved in the NAACP and its Legal Defense Fund (LDF). I had a little trouble keeping the large cast of characters straight, as the story jumps back and forth between the case and the history leading up to it, but I found it to be a captivating read. One gets a fairly raw look at the atmosphere of the times, including the reality that no person of color was likely to see justice done in any legal conflict that crossed the racial barrier — in a capital case such this, that the defendants would be found guilty was rarely in doubt, regardless of the facts, and it was considered a “victory” if the sentence came back as life in prison rather than the electric chair. The book tells of some truly heinous characters and lays out the LDF’s strategy of establishing grounds for appeal, because the only possibility for a result that came close to fair would only happen in courts far removed from the alleged crime.

It’s hard not to notice the similarities of this case with recent events in Ferguson, in New York, and elsewhere — that while some of the overt acts of violence stemming from racism have subsided — lynch mobs by people in sheets, as an example — far more behavior has only been masked and still pervades society. I’ll leave to others more eloquent than I to continue to delve in to commentary on all that, save for this: it’s too easy to say that things are better now than they were 60 years ago and leave it at that. To ignore it because for many of us it’s normally out of sight. To not believe the stories simply because we don’t experience it ourselves (a lot of parallels with sexual misconduct here as well). Social media has been a big step forward, as it has allowed for these events to be shared and not contained as a local, isolated incident. Maybe it can galvanize us enough to follow through to the next steps, to change the system and/or the people in the system, as necessary.

I’ve read that the rights to the book have been bought by Lionsgate, and they have given it a high priority. I hope this project doesn’t pull any punches. We got a glimpse of this kind of atmosphere in “Mississippi Burning”, including the collusion and overlap between law enforcement and the KKK, and “Devil in the Grove” shows us that the portrayal was not Hollywood embellishment. (It also shows the FBI wasn’t always so keen or successful in working civil rights cases — that transformation starts in the book’s span of history) There are a couple of story arcs in the book, where the attitudes of a few people are changed by their exposure to the hypocrisy of the situation and to the persuasiveness of Thurgood Marshall, which might lend themselves to some of Hollywood’s weaknesses (that can change “true story” into “based on a true story”). I say read the book — there is only so much a movie can include, anyway — and hope the movie doesn’t disappoint.