Devil in the Grove
On July 15, 1949, as Gilbert King relates in his superlatively researched and utterly mesmerizing book,
Devil in the Grove, a young Lake County, Florida, white man, Willie Padgett, was driving his estranged
17-year-old wife, Norma Lee, home from a night of drinking and dancing when their dilapidated 1940 Ford
broke down. Two African-American World War II veterans, Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvin, stopped to offer
their assistance, but Padgett, roaring drunk, took exception to their efforts, and a fight ensued. The
next day, Sheppard and Irvin, and two other black men who hadn’t even been on the scene, stood accused of
raping Norma Lee Padgett, a crime that, almost certainly, was never committed. Before long, the Ku Klux
Klan had “defended the flower of Southern womanhood” by torching a black section of the town of Groveland,
and a mob of vigilantes, possibly led by Lake County Sheriff Willis V. McCall himself, had murdered one of
four accused men in cold blood.
The NAACP’s Thurgood Marshall knew that, in the white supremacist Southern courts of the mid-20th Century,
any black man accused of sexually violating a white woman was certain to be found guilty. But he also
recognized that a properly conceived defense of the three remaining “Groveland Boys” presented an opportunity
not only to win their case on appeal, but also to establish precedents that could help dismantle Jim Crow.
Ignoring the daunting personal risk involved (indeed, one of his Florida-based NAACP colleagues was killed
in a house bombing soon thereafter), Marshall assumed leadership of the case.
Gilbert King has taken advantage of the unique access he was granted to NAACP files and uncensored FBI
transcripts to construct a minute-by-minute account that is at once a harrowing crime thriller and an
intimate portrait of Marshall and his fellow NAACP lawyers. At the time he was defending the Groveland
Boys, Marshall was also preparing to argue the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case before the
Supreme Court, a coincidence that has enabled King to demonstrate, as no historian has before, how the
NAACP’s tactics in every case that it handled were part of a disciplined and brilliantly coordinated
strategy that succeeded in ending segregation in America.
Thurgood Marshall ultimately convinced the Supreme Court to overturn the Groveland Boys’ inevitable Florida
conviction. The victory was a legal triumph, but, in human terms, it was wrenchingly hollow. Sheriff McCall
took it upon himself to transport two of the defendants to the site of their new trial, and managed to pump
multiple gunshots into his two handcuffed prisoners en route. (It was “self-defense,” he explained.) McCall
was exonerated by a jury that included many of his cronies, and the good citizens of Lake County consistently
re-elected him until 1972, when, after yet another black prisoner in his custody was beaten to death, the
governor finally removed him from office. “Sometimes I get awfully tired of trying to save the white man’s
soul,” King quotes Marshall as reflecting.
- Christopher Cerf
2013 finalist judge
2013 Nonfiction Runner-Up
(Click photo to see acceptance speech at awards dinner.)
Devil in the Grove
“In a Supreme Court decision striking down the death penalty in 1972, Thurgood Marshall wrote,
'In recognizing the humanity of our fellow beings, we pay ourselves the highest tribute.' Marshall's
words are a beacon for those who pushed through darkness and violence to bring about peace and
social justice. As storytellers, can we aspire to a more noble truth?”
— Gilbert King
Gilbert King is the author of Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America,
which was awarded the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction. Thomas Friedman of The New York Times called it, "must-read,
cannot-put-down history," while Junot Diaz described the book as "superb." The book was also a finalist for The Chautauqua Prize
and nominated for an Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime. King is originally from Schenectady, NY. He has written about race,
Supreme Court history, and the death penalty for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Pacific Standard.
He is also a featured contributor to Smithsonian magazine's history blog, Past Imperfect. His book, The
Execution of Willie Francis: Race, Murder, and the Search for Justice in the American South was published in 2008 and
described by Counterpunch magazine as "almost certainly the best book on capital punishment in America since Mailer's
The Executioner's Song." King lives in New York City with his wife, two daughters, and a French Bulldog named Louis.