Last March, a week after the murder of Trayvon Martin, HarperCollins released Gilbert King’s Devil in the Grove. As we said in our review at the time, this tremendous, impeccably researched book, which tells the story of Thurgood Marshall’s defense of the Groveland Boys — four young black men who were accused of raping a white woman — hits close to home, not only because of the national spotlight on Martin, but also because of the geography. Both happened in Florida less than 50 miles from eachother. King, who is speaking at the Miami Book Fair on Sunday, took some time to answer our questions about the book, his research, and how he thinks the trial of the Groveland Boys would end today.
Gilbert King, with Rachel L. Swarns 10:30 a.m. Sunday, Nov. 18, at Miami Book Fair; building 8, room 8502.
I’ll admit, I knew nothing about the Groveland Boys before I read Devil in the Grove. How famous was (is) this case?
This case was very well-known in 1951. It was covered by almost all of the national newspapers at the time, especially when there were some very high-profile killings that happened shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the first rape verdict. But it’s a case that has slipped off the radar in civil rights history, and even in examinations of Thurgood Marshall’s life.
What first sparked your interest in the case and what made you decide to write a book about it?
I was doing some research for my last book, The Execution of Willie Francis [the story of an unjustly tried young black man who survives the electric chair in 1946], and I saw some memos that Marshall had written regarding the Supreme Court legal strategy. I remember being surprised by how Marshall had been thinking beyond the courts in criminal cases, into areas of media, public relations, and even activism, and it inspired me to take a closer look at some of the other criminal cases he’d gotten involved in during the years before Brown v. Board of Education.
How do you think a case like this would end today?
I think, judging from the way the public reacted to the Trayvon Martin case, there would be no possible way that Sheriff Willis McCall would have been able to escape appearing before a Grand Jury in the shooting of Walter Irvin and Samuel Shepherd. It just wouldn’t be possible to have a judge sweep that under the rug and prevent McCall being indicted.
As far as the rape case goes, I don’t think it would be possible today to have a judge block medical evidence, such as the alleged post-rape examination by a physician, from coming into the courtroom, simply because he believed that the young woman’s word was strong enough evidence of rape. It’s hard to imagine that happening today.
The research took several years. I filed a Freedom of Information Act Request and had to wait quite a while for the unredacted FBI files to become available. And once they were released, the information opened up many new areas that I had to explore. But I would say the research took about three years.
Once your research was finished, how long did the book itself take?
When I finally began writing, I had been given clearance to examine the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund Files. These were files that very few authors or historians have been granted access to, so I pretty much had to stop everything and go down to Washington, D.C. to start researching again. These files were imperative to the story because they allowed me to go behind the scenes with Thurgood Marshall and the defense lawyers in this case, and look at their strategy notes and minutes from meetings. Harper gave me a six-month extension because they understood the extra research time was so important to the story.
How did writing Devil in the Grove compare to writing your previous book The Execution of Willie Francis?
I think Devil in the Grove was much more complicated because there are several narrative threads running through it, and the case itself was more complex. The Groveland Boys each had different fates in the story, all dramatic and violent, and the political and judicial maneuvering behind the scenes was just as complex. Aside from covering the trials from the point of view of the defense, I also had a lot of material from behind the scenes of the prosecution — which was even more fascinating to me. The idea of a prosecutor who begins to have a change of heart about the guilt of the men he was prosecuting is something that doesn’t happen too often in death penalty cases, so it was important for me to understand why, and to explore this.
You’ve written quite a bit about the death penalty. Would you consider that topic one of your passions?
I definitely have strong feelings about the death penalty personally, but I’m very careful about keeping those feelings to myself with my books. The stories in my books are generally so egregious from a judicial point of view that it’s not really necessary to do anything but let the facts speak for themselves. I’m really more passionate about giving people a glimpse of U.S. history that isn’t often written about because we sometimes don’t want to acknowledge that our own government was capable of this kind of systemic injustice.
Are you working on new projects?
Yes, I have two new ideas that I’m in the process of researching. One is very consistent with the kinds of cases I like to write about, and the other is a little bit different. Both aren’t far enough along to really talk about. But it’s fair to say that I am very much drawn to spectacular but mostly forgotten criminal cases, and writing about them in a way that enables people to have a better understanding of American history.