Wednesday night, Florida State Attorney Angela Corey announced George Zimmerman will be charged with second-degree murder for the killing of Trayvon Martin. At this point in the game, I don’t think any of us are sitting back, breathing sighs of relief and telling ourselves that now, all is right in this world. In fact, we should be anxiously reevaluating how (not) far the country has come in dismantling systemic racism and advancing civil rights. Because if Florida’s “stand your ground” law — a 21st Century Jim Crow law — is any barometer, every American should be scared as hell.
In a bitter coincidence, just one week after the death of Martin, HarperCollins released Gilbert King’s Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America. Heartbreaking and terrifying, this story of racial injustice in 1949 is impossible to read without thinking of the Sanford-based murder of the unarmed Martin, which happened less than 50 miles from Groveland, Florida.
King’s impeccably researched narrative begins with a rape accusation made by white 17-year-old Norma Padgett against four black men. Padgett points her finger, seemingly out of thin air, at World War II veterans Walter Irvin and Samuel Shepherd, teenager Charles Greenlee and his friend Ernest Thomas. Under the watch of sadistic Sheriff Willie McCall, one of the most fearful figures ever portrayed in both non-fiction and fiction, Irvin, Shepherd, and Greenlee are arrested and tortured. Out of fear for their lives, and after hours of beatings, Shepherd and Greenlee are coerced into confessions. Thomas, hearing of the three men’s arrests, attempts unsuccessfully to flee the Ku Klux Klan that has descended on the county. Filled with murderous resolve and determined to terrorize black families, the KKK starts riots, carries out lynchings, sets homes on fire, and chases men and women out of town.
In what many considered a suicide mission, Thurgood Marshall, Chief Counsel of the NAACP, and his team of lawyers take on the Groveland Boys’ case. The chain of murderous events that follows is a gut-wrenching story of unremitting racial injustice. As readers bear witness to Marshall’s war in Florida, they also watch him battle for civil rights in the rest of the country — most notably fighting, case by case, segregation in schools.
This book is impossible to read without deep sadness, raw anger, and unending frustration. Tears are unavoidable. Occasionally, you’ll want to close the book and throw it against the wall, as it’s impossible to throw it at the never-ending cast of bigots who held horrific control over Groveland. Then you will wish Marshall was still alive, not just so you can hug him and thank him for his crusade, but also because you wish he could help find justice for Trayvon Martin.