By Gilbert King, Harper, March 6, 2012, 0061792284

Devil in the Grove is a powerful and important history book. The South as it really was: racist, corrupt, and violent. African Americans were treated as slaves, well into the 60s.

Willis McCall is the Devil. I don’t believe in evil. That’s too easy, just a label. There are bad actors; McCall is one. His deputy, James Yates is another. (It seems that there was only one deputy on McCall’s force that wasn’t, and it took him a long time to break his silence.)

These men were racists, but they were criminals, first and foremost, and possibly psychopaths. Anybody who can kill in cold blood and lie about it minutes later, has to have some personality trait that allows them to do it. Their goal was to power at all costs. They abused the vulnerable. They dominated everybody else including govenors and prosecutors.

Marshall is just one hero of several in the book. I think Walter Irvin was probably the biggest hero by not willing to say he was guilty just to avoid being executed. He just barely lived through all of that, and then was executed (probably by McCall) after being freed.

I hated the violence of the book. I had to read through it. I needed to have a sense of the violence in order to understand the NAACP and the South.

[k56] He would rewrite the draft before he typed it up later; he worked meticulously. A federal clerk once told him that with just one look at the smudges or erasures on a lawyer’s pleading he’d know if it was written by a white man or a Negro. It was a remark Thurgood Marshall never forgot.

[k95] And like Harper Lee’s heroic lawyer, Atticus Finch, Thurgood Marshall found himself at the center of a firestorm. It would bring the National Guard to Lake County, Florida, where mob violence drove hundreds of blacks from their lives in Groveland, and in the aftermath it would prompt four sensational murders of innocents, among them a prominent NAACP executive.

[k106] “You know,” Marshall said to him, “sometimes I get awfully tired of trying to save the white man’s soul.” Battling personal demons as well as the devils who brought bullets, dynamite, and nitroglycerin into the Groveland fray, the lawyer saw death all around him in central Florida.

[k115] Marshall would later say, “There is very little truth in the old refrain that one cannot legislate equality. Laws not only provide concrete benefits, they can even change the hearts of men–some men, anyhow–for good or evil.”

[k226] He’d been there when they’d taken one man out of jail and lynched him back in ‘, and more recently, there was young Cordie Cheek. The community was still raw over Cordie’s killing. The nineteen-year-old had been falsely accused of assaulting the twelve-year-old sister of a white boy he had been fighting with. The boy paid his sister a dollar to tell police that Cordie had tried to rape her, but a grand jury refused to indict and Cordie was released and abducted that same day by county officials, who took him to a cedar tree and hanged him.

[k259] Photographed soon after, the image of that casket would be published in newspapers across the country and ultimately come to symbolize the Columbia riot of 1946. Across its lid, in large letters, “KKK” was crudely scrawled in chalk.

[k269] An editorial in the Columbia Daily Herald proclaimed that the “situation is in the hands of the state troops and state police. … The white people of the South … will not tolerate any racial disturbances without resenting it, which means bloodshed. The Negro has not a chance of gaining supremacy over a sovereign people and the sooner the better element of the Negro race realize this, the better off the race will be.”

[k487] In the midst of helping Charles Houston prepare briefs for the NAACP’s first test case on educational segregation before the U.S. Supreme Court, Thurgood and Buster found themselves delivering groceries around Harlem and Washington Heights for extra cash.

[k495] Houston warned Thurgood about the difficulties of working under Walter White, the executive secretary of the NAACP.

[k509] If Harlem was the black capital of America, Sugar Hill was its cultural soul. It contained “perhaps the most modern and beautiful residential areas for Negroes in black America,” and it was home to musicians like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Lena Horne, the writer Ralph Ellison, and actor Paul Robeson.

[k519] Madame Stephanie St. Clair, known to most as “Queenie,” was purported to be the Numbers Queen of Harlem and, at one point, the richest black woman in America.

[k533] Like many intellectuals and activists who joined the NAACP’s fight for equal rights, both Wright and Hughes were drawn to communism, and for decades Marshall had to navigate the complex relationship between communist supporters in the Civil Rights Congress–a communist front organization dedicated to civil liberties–and J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, which, Marshall knew, could destroy the NAACP with just a few well-timed words during the Red Scare.

[k574] In this 1944 case, Smith v. Allwright, involving an all-white primary, the U.S. Supreme Court justices voted 8–1 in Marshall’s favor, ruling that blacks “cannot be legally barred from voting in the Texas Democratic primaries.”

[k584] THURGOOD MARSHALL SMOKED three packs of cigarettes a day.

[k603] Walter White was worried. He wanted to avoid sending Marshall to Harlem Hospital–a place, he noted, that had earned such a reputation for the “callous and inadequate treatment” of black patients that it inspired a folk saying: “When any member of your family goes to Harlem Hospital, telephone the undertaker.” White thus reached out to some of his society friends and associates in an attempt to have Marshall admitted to Mount Sinai Hospital. It was not to be. Citing red tape, overcrowded conditions, and the inability to “build a room” for Marshall on such short notice as the excuses offered by the hospital, White concluded that Marshall, in his hour of need, was not admitted because of his race.

[k910] BY THE LATE 1940s, Marshall was logging some fifty thousand miles each year as he swooped into cities and towns across the South, usually alone. The postwar years marked the beginning of a more violent era in the American South, and Marshall’s willingness to ride into a hornet’s nest of racial conflict in pursuit of his well-stated goal–to dismantle Jim Crow–only cemented his growing legacy as a crusader for justice.

[k1008] W. J. Cash, in his seminal exploration of Southern culture, The Mind of the South, wrote that while “the 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.”

[k1204] A gang of blacks, he’d been told, had raped a young, white Lake County girl, and as the news quickly spread, cars were rapidly gathering. Vengeance charged the county air.

[k1398] BY THE HUNDREDS, blacks cleared out of Groveland on the backs of citrus trucks. Others took blankets, food, and water and fled with their children into the pine leaf forests, surer than rumor that the Ku Klux Klan would be coming from all directions to burn down Stuckey Still, the black enclave west of Groveland.

[k1488] With Lake County on its way to becoming one of the richest counties in the nation, USDA inspector Willis McCall was able to foster relationships with the powerful citrus barons of central Florida.

[k1503] Willis McCall was a throwback to the bygone days of Lake County.

When the incumbent sheriff died in office in early 1944, McCall threw his hat into the ring with the backing of the county’s big citrus men and began campaigning.

[k1531] Indeed, one of McCall’s deputies later acknowledged that the sheriff and his deputies controlled gambling in Lake County “from the back door of the county jail.”

[k1541] Still, despite the additional money collected from fines, journalists wondered how the sheriff was able, on a mere four-digit salary, to accumulate the vast stretch of land on which he later built his ranch in Umatilla.

Despite the chronic labor shortage in the groves, wages were kept low, and with the new sheriff enforcing the work or fight laws, citrus barons had in the blacks of Lake County “a ready pool of [cheap] involuntary labor that could be tapped whenever whites faced any sort of labor emergency.”

[k1547] McCall, without a warrant, entered Fryar’s home and placed him under arrest. Fryar protested, but McCall was in no mood to explain: “None of your damn jaw, come on with me,” the sheriff said and, unprovoked, whipped out his blackjack and knocked Fryar out cold in front of his wife and fourteen-year-old son. McCall then dragged the supposedly delinquent picker to his car and hauled him off to jail in Tavares, where he was held for days before receiving any medical treatment.

Pickers like Fryar were assessed exorbitant fines, which trapped them in debt peonage, a condition not unlike slavery. The “Florida bail bond racket” was, according to a former Orlando newspaper editor, the “most lucrative business in the state.”

[k1564] Local whites had made it clear that blacks could expect consequences and possible mob action if they stirred up trouble for the sheriff and the county by talking to J. Edgar Hoover’s men. Thus was Sheriff Willis McCall able to successfully dodge charges, as the FBI abandoned its investigation due to lack of evidence.

[k1595] The beating, he told Mabel, had been executed by two of McCall’s deputies, one of them his right-hand man, James Yates. “Now let that be a lesson to you,” the picker had been warned. “Don’t talk to any of these organizers again.”

That “lesson” was exactly the hard-line stance that whites in Lake County had come to expect from their sheriff, and the threat of a union-organized labor strike in the groves and packinghouses of Florida’s interior citrus belt during the height of the harvest season spelled bad news for any opponents hoping to unseat Sheriff Willis McCall.

[k1625] It was no coincidence that the Ku Klux Klan held five rallies in Lake County in the weeks leading up to Election Day to show their support for McCall as well as presidential candidate Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who was running as a member of the splinter group of segregationist Southern Democrats who became known in 1948 as the Dixiecrats.

[k1669] Outraged by President Truman’s espousal of civil rights legislation, Green had promised that any Yankee attempt to force equality between the races would oblige Americans to “see blood flow in these streets. The Klan will not permit the people of this country to become a mongrel race.”

[k1687] Wilkins was concerned that Klan violence would lead to a mass exodus of blacks, which would have a disastrous negative impact on production, and profits, at his plant.

[k1777] As McCall surveyed the crowd, among the unmasked faces he sighted many men he knew, some of them as law enforcement officers, like C. E. Sullins, the police chief in Clermont. Groveland’s Curtis Merritt was one of the leaders, as was Wesley Evans, the stout, illiterate citrus grove caretaker the sheriff himself had on occasion recruited: proficient with a leaded hose in his treatment of black pickers, Evans proved to be useful in helping the law obtain confessions from black suspects in the basement of the Lake County Court House.

[k1797] As if on cue, the rioters began threatening all the newsmen, telling them to get out of town and warning them not to print any lies about what was happening in Lake County.

[k1869] Not by intent, Shepherd also drew the resentment that festered among the poor white farmers in Bay Lake. Neighbors tore down Shepherd’s fences, thus allowing cows to graze on his farm–and to destroy his crops just before harvest.

[k1871] McCall merely confirmed what Shepherd already knew: “No nigger has any right to file a claim against a white man.”

[k1876] Despite the setbacks, Henry Shepherd continued to prosper, in part because the older of his six children worked on the family farm rather than in the citrus groves: another irritant to many whites.

[k1881] Envy of Shepherd’s prosperity and growing bargaining power intensified when Samuel, home from the army in 1949, did not return to the citrus groves but worked with his father instead. The sight of that “smart nigger” Samuel, still in his military uniform, driving around town in his brother’s Mercury, rankled whites.

[k1891] “The Negroes do most of the work around here,” the Klansman told McCarthy. “It’s these nigger farmers–they’ve got to go.” Black farmers like Henry Shepherd and his family threatened, “by their example, the whole system of servitude and forced labor which is the base of the local economy,” McCarthy wrote.

[k2103] In the postwar decade Florida would also prove to be a state with a boundless capacity for racial inhumanity, even by measure of the rest of the South, and Marshall and Moore would find themselves challenging law enforcement officers and elected officials determined, without conscience, to whitewash some of the most horrific lynching cases of the twentieth century.

From 1882 to 1930, Florida recorded more lynchings of black people (266) than any other state, and from 1900 to 1930, a per capita lynching rate twice that of Mississippi, Georgia, or Louisiana.

[k2395] Still, Williams was beginning to appreciate Marshall’s strategy in regard to criminal cases in the South, where local law enforcement, prosecutors, judges, and juries all guaranteed that the scales of justice would tip in favor of white supremacy.

[k2588] After World War I, dozens of Negro soldiers had been lynched in the South, some of them still wearing their uniforms, and in the summer of 1946 the lynchings of black veterans resumed with a vengeance.

[k2772] McCall knew his constituents, and he knew what they expected of him if he planned on having them keep him in the sheriff’s office. McCall held the office until 1972.

[k2917] McCall paid a visit to Ernest Thomas’s parents, too. Then he drove them from Groveland to Tavares, where Ethel and Luther Thomas were also jailed until the date of the trial.

[k3088] In fact, Poston had once accompanied Marshall on one of the NAACP attorney’s late-night adventures, on this particular occasion to obtain affidavits from blacks who were being terrorized by police in Freeport, New York, then (in the 1930s) a hub of KKK activity.

[k3139] For a measure of security, too, Poston reserved a suite in a Negro hotel in Orlando for the duration of his assignment, but each night he would steal out the back door of the hotel to sleep instead at one of three secret private homes.

[k3177] Jesse Hunter would rely on the probability that the testimony of a young white woman would trump anything the three Negroes might say in their defense. Judge Futch, meanwhile, compounded Williams’s frustration in his rulings not to make the medical report available to the defense and not to allow any testimony about beatings of prisoners at the hands of law enforcement.

[k3193] Most of the prospective jurors, not surprisingly, were also white. Of the three black men whose names had been pulled from the jury pool, only one made it to court: a “gray haired old handyman” whose father-in-law had recently died. The court clerk implored Williams to excuse the “boy” so that he could attend the funeral, adding that the handyman was “one of the best niggers in Lake County.” Then all the jurors were white, and by the end of that Friday morning in early September both Hunter and Akerman had announced to Judge Futch that they were satisfied with the jury in the box.

[k3201] Testimony in State of Florida v. Samuel Shepherd, Walter Irvin, Charles Greenlee, Ernest E. Thomas began after a recess on Friday, September 2, 1949. Hundreds of spectators packed into the Lake County Court House, among them a few dozen blacks who filed up to the balcony to a section reserved for coloreds.

[k3276] Before he got to a phone, without any warning or cause he got “jostled by a couple of hoodlums,” as he put it, and one of them “accidentally” stepped on his eyeglasses. Poston hadn’t brought a second pair.

[k3282] So it was that Henry Singleton had, in rather a bland narrative, put all three defendants in Groveland in the early evening of July 15. He had also put himself, and the sheriff, back in control of the county’s bolita business.

His mother, Ethel Thomas, who had been in the lockup during the days preceding the trial and had no doubt had time to contemplate the future of her business, the Blue Flame, had decided to cooperate with the sheriff and state attorney. She testified that her son had gone to a party in town that evening.

[k3802] A self-confident manager and a crafty leader, Marshall thrived on the talents of his staff and associates.

[k3892] He had driven a young Thurgood Marshall across the South; he had opened his onetime student’s eyes and mind to the inequalities blacks suffered by law. For decades he had been laying the groundwork to overturn the injustices enacted against his race in Plessy. He did not live to see the culmination of his labor. The funeral services for Charles Hamilton Houston at Howard University’s Rankin Chapel were attended by Supreme Court justices Tom C. Clark and Hugo Black, an official from President Truman’s cabinet, numerous civil rights activists, and hundreds of friends and colleagues. Houston’s cousin, William Hastie, whom President Truman had nominated to a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals in 1949, paid homage to a civil rights champion’s “unremitting struggle to win for the Negro full status without discrimination.”

[k3972] He added that Bunin and the Times “are creating, or attempting to create race hatred and discord in Lake County, where relations between whites and coloreds have always been good.”

[k4115] In 1948, two years before the outbreak of the Korean War, President Truman had, by executive order, desegregated the armed forces, but the U.S. Army had not been prepared then or since–and certainly not at a time of war–to effectively integrate blacks into daily military life.

[k4121] It struck Marshall as strange that the notable 24th, which, despite “staggering casualties,” had demonstrated exceptional valor in retaking the city of Yechon on July 20, 1950, had gone from “heroes to cowards, all within a few days.”

[k4130] In hearings that lasted mere minutes, men had been sentenced to life imprisonment. One man–Leon Gilbert, a black lieutenant–had even received a death penalty, for being absent in the presence of the enemy: to Marshall’s mind, a highly suspect charge, given the testimony of two medical officers that Gilbert had not gone AWOL but had been “in a base hospital.”

[k4142] Marshall eventually did meet with General MacArthur, whom he characterized as being “as biased as any person I’ve run across.” Apparently staunch in his conviction that blacks as a race were “inferior,” the general had no black soldiers in the honor guard protecting him–had none in his entire headquarters, in fact–“not even in the band,” Marshall noted, “and I assume that there are some Negroes who can play instruments.”

[k4149] Ultimately, Marshall managed to have the sentences on many of the black GIs in Korea reduced, and he successfully lobbied President Truman to commute Lieutenant Leon Gilbert’s death sentence to time served.

[k4367] As for the image-obsessed sheriff of Lake County, Willis McCall, he was infuriated by the Supreme Court’s decision and his bad press. In a public statement he ranted against the Court’s reversal and “subversive influences” like the NAACP and the CIO Newspaper Guild: “The fact that they did not appeal the case of Greenlee along with the other two is an admission of guilt. The fact is that our U.S. Supreme Court let a few minority groups such as the NAACP and their eloquent and sensational lies and the receiving of awards from the CIO Newspaper Guild, such as received by Ted Poston, Negro writer for the New York Post, influence them to such a prejudiced extent that they saw fit to reverse one of the fairest and most impartial trials I have ever witnessed. It is shocking to think that our Supreme Court would bow to such subversive influences.”

[k4410] A thirty-two-year-old black lawyer from Orlando who had attended Howard University Law School after serving in the U.S. Army, Perkins seized on the opportunity to work with Thurgood Marshall, even at the meager $3.75 per hour the LDF could afford to pay; he’d grown accustomed to working long hours for small pay or, more commonly among his indigent clients, for “ham or oranges.”

[k4480] As Greenberg traveled around Lake County under “battlefield tension” it struck the young lawyer that residents who were unwilling or afraid to voice their opinions about the Groveland Boys case might respond more readily to the impersonality of a public opinion poll as to whether the defendants could get a fair trial in Lake County. Marshall agreed, and the NAACP was able to hire, at cost, an up-and-coming pollster by the name of Louis Harris, on behalf of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at Williams College, to conduct a survey of the Lake County population. Harris soon discovered he had a shadow, and he claimed that ultimately Willis McCall chased him out of town.

[k4607] Smaller headlines jumped out at him: “Officer Kills Suspect in Attack Case.” “Pair Enroute to Hearing Try Escape.” The name Sheriff Willis McCall was everywhere on the page. McCall had shot the Groveland boys. Shepherd was dead. Irvin was in the hospital, critically wounded. Tried to escape?

[k4859] The FBI agents returned to their district bureau to type up their notes and file their reports. In confidential report MM 44-267 the following notation would appear: “IRVIN agreeable to lie detector test. Sheriff McCALL and Deputy YATES do not desire to take lie detector test, McCALL claims sees no reason to take test as he has told truth.”

[k5075] “I don’t think there is any question about it that the white race is a superior race to the black race,” McCall once said. “I believe that’s a proven fact. In their native country, they’re still eating each other. We don’t do that.”

[k5344] He had a threat of his own to deliver: a message for Judge Truman Futch and anyone else who thought Thurgood Marshall was going to decamp or desert the Groveland case simply because a judge in Lake County had decided to bar him from defending Walter Irvin. “They can keep me from the courts of Florida,” Marshall shouted. “But there is no man alive or to be born who can prevent me from arguing the Groveland case before the U.S. Supreme Court!”

[k6387] In the hallway, just outside the courtroom, they spotted Deputy James Yates. Reese felt Hunter’s hold on her elbow tighten; they broke their pace, and he leaned in toward her. “Stay away from that man as far as you can,” Hunter whispered. “He just like to hurt people.”

[k6616] In the postwar forties in the Clarendon County courthouse, the NAACP had tried unsuccessfully to prevent the state of South Carolina from executing George Stinney Jr., a ninety-pound fourteen-year-old boy convicted of murder. Rushed to the electric chair within months of his conviction, Stinney became the youngest person ever to be executed in the United States in the twentieth century.

[k6765] In the summer of 1954, the outspoken Willis V. McCall was named a director of the National Association for the Advancement of White People, which devoted itself primarily to the advocacy of racial segregation.

[k6904] Marshall’s request produced a letter to clergymen in which Chalmers called for their support of clemency in the case of Walter Irvin: what Chalmers described as a “desperate situation.” In the letter, too, he cited a Florida newspaper that, in the same day’s edition, covered Irvin’s impending date with death in one article and in another reported that a thirty-year-old white man had been fined a hundred dollars in the rape of a fourteen-year-old black girl. The coincidence hardly spoke to the “truth and justice and fairness” Collins espoused in his inaugural address.

[k6947] The man’s chances of recovery were uncertain, as Hunter had suspected–that was why he had driven to the hospital at the crack of dawn. The two men briefly discussed Irvin’s condition, and Irvin told the prosecutor he believed that he was going to die. Hunter sensed an opportunity: “Confess to the rape,” he whispered, promising Irvin that anything he said would be confidential and not ever be used against him. “For my satisfaction alone,” Hunter added. And waited, until: “No … I’m not guilty,” Irvin rasped.

[k7016] The judge did allow, though, that the governor may have been “the innocent victim of a clever deception,” apparently implemented by a communist agent. For, Futch claimed, “startling documents”–like a petition protesting capital punishment, it would appear–had come into his possession to prove that “at least one person suspected of being a Communist agent had been sent into Lake County” and that efforts “to gather information on this case . . . have transgressed both the law of God and man.”

[k7063] The sheriff’s personal reign of terror ended in 1972, when he was indicted and suspended from office by Governor Reubin Askew: the sixty-two-year-old McCall had kicked to death a mentally retarded black prisoner in his cell. Although McCall was acquitted of the charges, the time he’d spent defending himself in court had prevented him from campaigning effectively enough to win that year’s election. Still, he was only barely defeated in his bid for an eighth consecutive term.