2012, Harper Collins
In 1949, in Lake County, Florida, Thurgood Marshall and other lawyers defended the Groveland Boys, four young black men accused by white teenager Norma Padgett of raping her.
Evidence or lack thereof suggested the accusation was false, and that instead the business interests of white farmers were at stake: “…the whites…were less interested in seeking revenge for the rape of Norma Padgett than in seeing the demise of “all independent colored farmers” (152). This encouraged “…the ruthless measures men took to protect the flower that was “Southern white womanhood.” (164).
Violence against blacks was not new, and even J. Edgar Hoover, not exactly a champion of civil rights, testified in 1946 that “ “lawless police action” against blacks was so commonplace in the South that at one particular jail “it was seldom that a Negro man or woman was incarcerated who was not given a severe beating, which started off with a pistol whipping and ended with a rubber hose.” (213)
(President Truman’s Report for the President’s Committee on Civil Rights)
The Groveland Boys were convicted after a boisterous trial. Heckling from the audience was encouraged by the prosecution, while the apparently disinterested judge “whittled, like a substitute teacher tolerating an unruly class.” (502)
Norman Bunin, a journalist who did extensive research into the case, told Thurgood Marshall that “although most of the whites (in Lake County) were happy about the conviction, many of them don’t believe Norma Padgett’s story.” (327)
What is this human propensity to destroy the lives of others, to not only allow but to rejoice in the conviction and even death of the innocent?
But there is another human force, one of courage and a life-long dedication to the fight for justice.
Thurgood Marshall and his staff kept fighting even in the face of disappointing verdicts : “You fought so that you lived to fight another day, whether by filing an appeal to a higher court or simply by recognizing that when an all-white jury handed a black defendant a life sentence instead of the death penalty, you had in a sense won, because the jurors believed your client to be innocent. (194)
No choice but to cheer for a life sentence, while the judge whittles calmly away. I try to keep my hope in the future, remembering Nelson Mandela's words to Michele Obama: change takes time.
September 8 was International Literacy Day. The Innocence Project’s Christina Swarns chose Devil in the Grove to top her list of “books everyone should read”.