Source of book: Borrowed from the library.
This has to be one of the hardest books I have ever read. Not because it is difficult, but because it is so horrifying - particularly in the difficult times we are in right now. The events in this book took place a little over 70 years ago - during the lifetimes of some of my parents’ generation. And, sadly, the last few years have proven that we haven’t moved forward all that much since then either.
On the one hand, this book is about great heroes. It is about the hope that people can change their minds and become better. But it is also about the unfortunate fact that the good people do not always win. And also that humans can be simply horrid: full of hate, prejudice, and easily incited to murder by whatever means they have at hand.
My older daughters have each had to read To Kill a Mockingbird for freshman English - they had already read it, so they had a head start. I remember my mother reading it to us. I read it for myself the first time in junior high, and again as an adult. It never gets easier; it is still one of the most moving and horrifying stories in the canon. It is precisely because it is all too true that makes it horrifying.
The events in Devil in the Grove likely inspired Harper Lee’s novel, although she certainly had her pick of judicial lynchings to choose from. This particular case is interesting in part because Thurgood Marshall played a role in it. As a result of his involvement, the FBI did a series of investigations into aspects of the case. Sadly, political realities kept the findings of these investigations secret for decades afterward, and the truly guilty parties went to their graves without paying any meaningful penalty for their roles in the murders. Gilbert King was able to access these files, and illuminate what really went down - information which Marshall lacked during the trials, and which could have changed the course of a number of lives.
The underlying story is one repeated thousands of times across the Jim Crow south: a white woman cries rape, some young black men are arrested, beaten into confessing, and either lynched, or given a sham trial and executed. Never mind any exculpatory evidence. Never mind rock solid alibis. Never mind due process. The honor of all white women must be avenged, and human sacrifice committed.
In the Groveland case, two of the men had indeed had brief contact with the woman and her semi-estranged husband. But their behavior afterward looked nothing like that of men who even suspected a charge of rape would be made. The other two men, believe it or not, could not possibly have committed a rape. In one case, he was clearly out of town long before it could have been done, while the other was...wait for it...in police custody when the rape was alleged to have occurred. But never mind, blood sacrifice was needed.
These facts were generally known at the time of trial. But there was more. The behavior of the alleged victim afterward was completely inconsistent with that of a rape victim. Multiple witnesses saw her and talked with her, and her appearance, story, and actions were at odds with her later story. Even more damning: she was given a medical exam, and no semen or signs of force were discovered. This fact was withheld from the defense, and the judge refused to let the doctor be called as a witness. (Just one of many obvious actions by the judge to guarantee a conviction. Seriously, as a lawyer, it is astounding that this sort of stuff happened routinely. I guess this is the sort of judge that Le Toupee thinks we should have…)
After the arrests, the three defendants were beaten nearly to death. Two of them confessed - including the one, a mere teen, who was in custody at the time of the alleged crime. The third never did confess, but the sheriff made sure the newspapers printed that all of them had confessed. (Yep, more tampering with justice.) The fourth defendant was gunned down by a posse.
And then, the KKK showed up - from other towns. A few unsuccessful attempts at gaining access to the prisoners to lynch them, they went and blew up and burned down most of the African American neighborhood. The sheriff stood by and watched it happen, and then refused to identify any of the perpetrators. In addition, the local head of the NAACP, Harry Moore, and his wife were murdered by a bomb put under their house. Again, no arrests were ever made.
Although Thurgood Marshall was involved in the preparation for the first trial, it was Franklin Williams and Alex Ackerman who actually tried the case. Both deserve props for outstanding work. Williams as a young black attorney taking a huge personal risk by even appearing in court in Florida, and Ackerman for essentially sacrificing his political career for the sake of justice.
Unsurprisingly, the verdict was guilty. However, in the case of the teen who was clearly not guilty, the jury recommended only life imprisonment. That’s as close to an exoneration as an African American could expect in Jim Crow Florida in the 1940s.
Marshall then appealed the case, barely keeping ahead of the prosecution’s efforts to have the defendants executed without delay. Eventually, the Supreme Court heard the case, and reversed it.
Prior to the second trial, however, the sheriff took the two defendants (only those two cases were appealed, for strategic reasons), drove them to a remote location, and shot them, claiming they tried to escape. One of them survived, however.
The second trial - now for just one remaining defendant - went about the same, despite Marshall’s personal involvement in the case. During the appeals of this second sham trial, Florida elected a new governor, one more eager to shed Florida’s reputation as a racist hellhole in order to attract investment from wealthy Yankees. The death sentence was commuted to life. And yet, despite this, while out on a temporary parole, this defendant was found dead under suspicious circumstances. It was rule “natural causes” and that basically ended the matter.
So yeah, a really sad story. The silver lining, to the extent there was one, was in the fact that this case played a key role in galvanizing the Civil Rights Movement. The open murder by the sheriff and the railroading of justice by a corrupt judge led to outrage in the North, and shined a light on the festering evil that thrived in places like Florida. Bad publicity eventually led to political pressure to change.
The other positive was that a few characters in this book - including Mabel Norris Reece, a journalist who originally was staunchly against the defendants - changed their minds as a result of seeing Southern “justice” in action. Sadly, many more stuck to their views even when it became obvious that the authorities had murdered innocent men.
If I had read this book a few years ago, I probably would have felt relief in the idea that things are a lot better now. And in some ways, yes they are. In other ways, though, things are much the same. Our whole discussion of the Black Lives Matter movement is nothing more or less than a continuation of this story. The casual murder of unarmed black men (and sometimes women) by police, with a weak “I was afraid” used to justify it, even in the face of video evidence to the contrary continues. Protestors are still demonized (including by the most powerful politician in America), and “ungrateful” is just another term for “uppity negro.”
For that matter, the KKK hasn’t gone away. Sure, it is unusual to see white robes and hoods in public. But the new white hood is the red MAGA hat. And the new euphemism is the “Blue Lives Matter” response to BLM. It’s still the same argument. Most discouraging was to read statement after statement dehumanizing blacks, and realize that while we don’t usually use the N-word anymore in public, the statements are largely unchanged. It isn’t even a shock anymore to see a Florida candidate warn the public about “monkeying it up” by electing an African American candidate. And of course the racist white guy won, because Florida hasn’t changed that much.
I do think, though, that the book does point to some ways to fight back against hate and the KKK. First, those who do not subscribe to these ideas need to stand up and say it out loud. We also need to keep exposing the evil. Over and over as often as necessary. As young(er) people, we need to remind our “racist uncles” that their words and behavior are not acceptable to us, and that they will not be coddled. And, of course, VOTE! One reason we have the KKK in the White House is that too few of us decent people showed up - particularly in the swing states.
While the entire book is exceedingly quotable, a few things stood out to me. First is the history of the NAACP and Thurgood Marshall. I was 15 when Marshall retired from the US Supreme Court. I remember watching the announcement with my dad, and his chuckle at his line, “What’s wrong with me? I’m old!” (See 3:20 in this clip from his press conference.) At the time, even though I was reasonably informed about law and politics, I didn’t really grasp just how much of a legal badass Marshall was. Once I got to law school, obviously, I saw him in a new light. Arguing (successfully) Brown v. Board of Education while he was with the NAACP was obviously a highlight, but he had a whole string of cases that chipped away at the foundation of Jim Crow.
Likewise, the work done by the NAACP and its legal branch was singularly impressive. I jotted down the three criteria used to determine if they would get involved in a criminal case:
Marshall issued a memorandum that established three rules to be applied “to the types of criminal cases we accept…(1) That there is injustice because of race or color; (2) the man is innocent; (3) there is a possibility of establishing a precedent for the benefit of due process and equal protection in general and the protection of Negroes’ rights in particular.”
Rape cases presented a particular problem. King gives a few examples of contrasting cases. Often, when a consensual liaison between a white woman and a black man was discovered, she cried rape rather than face the scorn of her fellow whites. These charges were often impossible to defend against. Furthermore, as in the case of Joseph Spell and Eleanor Strubing, she actually abused her position to blackmail him into sex. (All too similar to Joseph and Potiphar’s wife…) In many states, a rape conviction meant a death sentence for a black man.
In contrast, even if a white man was convicted of raping a black child, he would get off with a fine or time served. Even worse if the white rapist was wealthy and/or powerful. An extended quote from The Mind of the South by W.J. Cash is interesting:
“[T]he actual danger of the Southern white woman’s being violated by the Negro has always been comparatively small...much less, for instance, than the chance that she would be struck by lightning,” it was “the most natural thing in the world for the South to see it as very great, to believe in it, fully and in all honesty, as a menace requiring the most desperate measures if it was to be held off.” In Cash’s estimation, the Southern rape complex “had nothing immediately to do with sex,” but rather with the feeling among Southerners that if blacks were allowed to advance beyond their severely circumscribed social station, they might “one day advance the whole way and lay claim to complete equality, including, specifically, the ever crucial right of marriage.”
This is why a rape accusation was so incendiary: the entire honor of all white women was at stake. As the crooked prosecutor in the Groveland case argued, (white) women valued their chastity more than life itself, and cited an apocryphal case of a woman throwing herself into the river rather than be raped. (Personally, given the choice between rape and death, I’d stay alive. Since I haven’t been raped or murdered, though, take that for what it is worth, I guess…)
It is not an accident that Le Toupee claimed that immigrants were “rapists.” This is deliberately loaded language aimed at dehumanizing minorities, and making racism into a “noble” defense of white chastity. And of course, has used such “desperate measures” as tearing children from their parents as punishment for seeking asylum. As I said, we have the KKK in the White House right now.
Those “desperate measures,” by the way, included flagrant misconduct. King tells of another of Marshall’s cases, where he and the defendant got the prosecutor to admit that he was literally present at the beating given to induce a confession. The prosecutor was literally shaking when Marshall was done with him. And yet. He still got a guilty verdict. The jury recommended a light sentence, though, which was as close as they could come to an acquittal. The greatest victory out of that case, though, was that the father of the (white) murder victim himself decided that the defendant was innocent and said so. And actually joined the NAACP.
Another thing which really struck me was the fact that the Civil Rights Movement has always been slurred by accusations of communism. Today’s Right does the same thing, of course, claiming everything is communism or socialism, whether or not it actually is. But it is a “conversation ender.” Accuse the other side of being communist, and that ends discussion. And thus it was in the 1940s too, except being accused of communism got you arrested or blackballed. (Ah, the halcyon days of McCarthyism…) I think this book actually explains pretty well why this happened. Under the name of “L. B. DeForest,” a young woman seeking to abolish the death penalty came to Lake County. She was also doing a bit of investigation for the NAACP in this case. What she heard was enlightening. Some church ladies offered their opinion of the case:
One of the ladies noted that “Negroes are o.k.,” but if they “step out of their place...they’ll burn.” Another said, “The Notherners spoil them and treat them like equals.”
I think this is ultimately the issue. “Communism” means, at an emotional level, that class and race get leveled. That prospect is, perhaps, the most terrifying. And also why racial equality is seen as “communism.” In that sense, nothing has changed. I myself have been accused of being a communist, which seems rich considering I have blogged extensively against communism and totalitarianism in general. But, if racial equality and public infrastructure that benefits all is communism, I guess I am one.
Speaking of the way things used to be - and still are - how about the connection between the KKK and violence against Jews? A few weeks ago, a Jewish center in Pittsburg got attacked by a White Supremacist gunman. Who was also racist against others. Well, same thing in the 1940s. The KKK gave equal attention to bombing Jewish targets along with the African American ones.
One other thing that was quite interesting was the way that certain historical figures came off. Douglas MacArthur has always been, shall we say, complex. On the one hand, he did some rather heroic things in war, and may have been right about Korea. (I still wonder if he had been allowed to march to Beijing, if we might have avoided Vietnam later.) But. But he was a thoroughgoing racist. Even after the Supreme Court in ordered the military desegregated (and president Truman concurred), MacArthur refused. Once he was relieved of command - for other reasons - the Army was desegregated in a few weeks. (A note here: I love air shows. One of the things I love about them is that our military men and women look a heck of a lot like America. Our finest young people are of all colors, and it makes me proud to be an American when I see them.)
Also not appearing particularly well was FDR, who seems to have been lukewarm at best to the idea of racial equality.
Eleanor Roosevelt, on the other hand: my goodness, what a magnificent woman. After Harry Moore’s murder - the first assassination of a civil rights leader - she came out with a prescient warning.
“That kind of violent incident will be spread all over every country in the world, and the harm it will do us among the people of the world is untold.” Indeed, stories in newspapers as far off as Asia and Africa reported the “violent incident,” and editorials in the world’s most influential newspapers condemned it.
Oh yes, this is so applicable to our own time. When even the most loathsome regimes can point to us and mock our own violence and hatred, we have a problem. (Hint: this is what you get when you elect a narcissist with a deep racist streak. Just saying…)
I’ll end with a quote from a pastor, Donald Harrington. I cannot help but think that if white pastors across our nation had had the courage to stand up and condemn the growing racism and xenophobia within their congregations, things would look different now. Anyway, here is a key part of his speech:
“Our whole country stands blackened and discredited in the eyes of the world because of Florida’s failure to protect the lives and liberties of all her citizens….I am ashamed of Florida, I am ashamed of the white race...I am ashamed of all the churches of Florida and elsewhere that have turned their eyes away from what has been going on in Lake County for these past years, and passed by on the other side while their fellow-Americans of a darker skin were being denied the most basic American and human rights and privileges. I weep for my country’s sacred honor.”
Amen, pastor Harrington. Amen. I too share that deep sense of shame at what so many of my race and religion have done to those who do not share their skin color. And how they justify racism, xenophobia, and hate by misusing the very name of God.
This book really should be required reading. It is horrifying, but it is all too true. The evils of racism continue in our society - where we really have never fully accepted the idea of true equality, where we value other people’s children like we do our own. We still live in a world where the KKK wields disproportionate power, and rogue sheriffs, prosecutors, and judges (see, respectively, Joe Arpaio, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, and Roy Moore) work to terrorize non-whites while carefully maintaining white supremacy. But we also have the power to fix this. We are indeed in the middle of an epic civil rights battle. It is time for a renewed Civil Rights Movement, dedicated to the premise that all are equal under the law, and are entitled to social, political, and economic equality. Thurgood Marshall and many others fought for nothing less. We owe it not just to our children, but everyone’s children, to leave them a world in which this is not merely possible, but reality.
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