Monday, August 25, 2014

Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America

"Nigger boy, what are you doing here?"

Marshall had been standing under the sweltering sun on the far end of the platform.  He had stomach pangs from hunger and he tried to make himself look small, but the white man had come straight toward him, eyes cold and firm, the gun on his hip in plain sight.

"Waiting for the train," Marshall told him.

The man eyed him up and down, suspicious of the suit.

"There's only one more train comes through here," the man told him, "and that's the four o'clock--you'd better be on it because the sun is never going down on a live nigger in this town."

His appetite gone, Marshall's eyes followed the man as he turned away.  "So I wrapped my constitutional rights in cellophane, tucked'em in my hip pocket...and caught the next train out of there," the lawyer recalled.

Gilbert King has done a great service by writing this book.  He captures an important moment in the legal fight for equal rights that gets overshadowed by Brown v. Board of Education and the end of Jim Crow laws: the struggle over executions of African-Americans in the south.

This book describes the Legal Defense Fund's defense, led by Thurgood Marshall, of the Groveland boys, four African-American men accused of raping a white woman, Norma Lee Padgett.  The story is one of racism, mob-violence, and perseverance.

After making her accusations of rape, three of the four men were arrested and taken to the jail.  A mob immediately formed and demanded that the rapists be released to them, so they could get "justice."  The sheriff, however, had already moved and hidden them at a nearby orange grove.  Realizing they wouldn't be able to lynch anyone, they went to the black section of town and started burning houses down and shooting into buildings.  The fourth Groveland boy was shot by a sheriff-organized posse.

At trial, the victim identified the perpetrators:

When [the prosecutor] asked Norma to "rise and point out" her rapists, she seemed first to take a few seconds to compose herself for the task as she directed her gaze toward the defendants.  She glanced steadily at each of them in turn before she stood up and straightened her dress.  She eyeballed the Groveland boys, then . . . Norma slowly raised an arm and extended her index finger, which, again in turn, she pointed at each of the defendants unhurriedly she drawled: "The nigger Shepherd . . . the nigger Irvin . . . the nigger Greenlee."

Hilariously, this photo from Barnes and Noble's
website has been photoshopped to remove
the bodies of Shepherd and Irvin.  Compare with below.
Two of the defendants received death sentences, the third received a life sentence.  On appeal, the two death sentences were reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court.  But, here, the plot thickens.  While driving the two prisoners from the prison to the jail, where they would be retried, the sheriff shot both prisoners.  He claimed that both had tried to escape.  Unfortunately for the sheriff, one of the prisoners lived to claim otherwise.

The director of the Florida NAACP called for an indictment and full investigation of the shooting; he was rewarded with a Christmas day bomb that killed both him and his wife.

At trial, the remaining defendant again received the death penalty.  Appeals did not reverse this sentence, but eventually, on the grounds that there was not enough evidence to be sure of guilt, the governor commuted this sentence.

What makes this book special is that it's about far more than a trial.  King describes an exchange between defendant Shepherd and his LDF attorney, Franklin Williams:

"Mr. Williams," he said, "when the trial is over, be careful."

More words followed, most of them lost by the dazed attorney after he'd heard Shepherd say that someone was "going to get that nigger lawyer."

Where did he hear that? Williams needed to know.

"Willis McCall," Shepherd told him.  "Said he was going to get that nigger lawyer."

Willis McCall was the sheriff who would eventually shoot two of the defendants.  So, the book becomes about more than a broken justice system, but a book about a southern population wanting to maintain the pre-existing social order.  As King points out, many communities, like Groveland, were not accustomed to black attorneys talking back to judges and disagreeing with any white folk.

And King presents the Groveland case, and its important to the white citizens of Groveland, as being less about the guilt of the defendants and more about the need to put African-Americans in their place.  That is, the Groveland boys needed to be executed so that African-Americans would remember that they belonged to a lower social order.

In this regard, the NAACP's participation, through the LDF, in fighting the death penalty makes more sense: by arbitrarily executing black Americans, society condoned the idea that the lives of black Americans were less valuable than that of white Americans.  This principle, of course, is unacceptable.

The book reminds me of words from Justice Marshall's opinion in Furman:

At a time in our history when the streets of the Nation's cities inspire fear and despair, rather than pride and hope, it is difficult to maintain objectivity and concern for our fellow citizens.  But the measure of a country's greatness is its ability to retain compassion in time of crisis.  No nation in the recorded history of man has a greater tradition of revering justice and fair treatment for all its citizens in times of turmoil, confusion, and tension than ours.  This is a country which stands tallest in troubled times, a country that clings to fundamental principles, cherishes its constitutional heritage, and rejects simple solutions that compromise the values that lie at the roots of our democratic system.

Flag outside the NAACP Offices.
It's noteworthy to me that Marshall, in writing this opinion and (obviously) many others had actual experience defending death cases at the trial and appellate level.  Thus, his opinions benefited from the wisdom gained from the front lines of cases like the Groveland Four.  Our current line up of justices lack such experience; would they, I wonder, come to the same rulings if they had some?

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