So far, Gilbert King’s book Devil in the Grove, about Thurgood Marshall and his defense of several black men falsely accused of raping a white woman in rural Tennessee in 1946, is a great book about a horrifying time in our country.
The author is a very good writer. This isn’t always the case. David Garrow’s biography of Martin Luther King, Jr., Bearing the Cross, which also earned the Pulitzer Prize and covered a similar subject, reads as though it were written by a mad collector of facts who murdered his editor.
Here’s the opening paragraphs from Devil in the Grove, as a teaser:
IF THAT SON of a bitch contradicts me again, I’m going to wrap a chair around his goddamned head.” One acquittal after another had left Tennessee district attorney general Paul F. Bumpus shaking his head in frustration over the NAACP lawyers, and now Thurgood Marshall was hoping to free the last of the twenty-five blacks accused of rioting and attempted murder of police in Columbia, Tennessee.
The sun had been down for hours, and the start of a cool, dark night had settled over the poolrooms, barbershops, and soda fountains on East Eighth Street in the area known as the Bottom, the rickety, black side of Columbia, where, nine months earlier, the terror had begun.
Just blocks away, on the news that a verdict had been reached, the lawyers were settling back into their chairs, fretfully waiting for the twelve white men on the jury to return to the Maury County courtroom. They’d been deliberating for little more than an hour, but the lead counsel for the defense, Thurgood Marshall, looked over his shoulder and knew immediately that something wasn’t right.
Throughout the proceedings of the Columbia Race Riot trials, the “spit-spangled” courtrooms had been packed with tobacco-chewing Tennesseans who had come to see justice meted out. But the overall-clad spectators were equally intrigued by Marshall and his fellow NAACP lawyers: by the strange sight of “those niggers up there wearing coats and talking back to the judge just like they were white men.”
Marshall was struck by the eeriness of the quiet, nearly deserted courtroom. The prosecution’s table had been aflutter with the activity of lawyers and assistants throughout the trial, but none of them had returned for the verdict. Only the smooth-talking Bumpus had come back. All summer long he’d carried himself with the confidence that his Negro lawyer opponents were no match for him intellectually. But by relentlessly attacking the state’s case in a cool, methodical manner, Marshall and his associates had worn Bumpus down, and had already won acquittals for twenty-three of the black men on trial.
The verdicts were stunning, and because the national press had defined the riots as “the first major racial confrontation following World War II,” Bumpus was no longer facing the prospect of humiliation just in his home county. The nation was watching and he had begun to unravel in the courtroom, becoming more frustrated, sarcastic, and mean-spirited as the trial progressed.
“Lose your head, lose your case,” was the phrase Marshall’s mentor, Charles Hamilton Houston, had drilled into him in law school. Marshall could tell that his adversary, seated alone at the prosecutor’s table, was in the foulest of moods as he was forced to contemplate the political ramifications of the unthinkable: his failure to win a single conviction against black lawyers defending black men accused of the attempted murder of white police in Maury County, Tennessee.
The shock from the summer’s not-guilty verdicts had worn off by November, and Marshall sensed that the white people of Columbia were becoming angrier and more resentful of the fact that this Northern Negro was still in town, making a mockery of the Tennessee courts. He’d watched patiently as Bumpus stacked the deck in his own favor by excusing every potential black jury member in the Maury County pool (there were just three) through peremptory challenges that did not require him to show cause for dismissal. And Marshall had paid close attention to the desperation in Bumpus’s closing statement to the jury, when the prosecutor warned them that if they did not convict, “law enforcement would break down and wives of jurymen would die at the hands of Negro assassins.”
None of it surprised Marshall. He was used to, and even welcomed, such tactics from his opponents because they often helped to establish solid grounds for appeals. But Marshall also noticed that the atmosphere around the Columbia courthouse was growing more volatile.
A political cartoonist for the Pittsburgh Courier now doing public relations work for the NAACP had been poking around the courthouse and had come to believe that the telephone wires were tapped and that the defense lawyers were in danger. Learning this, Marshall refused to discuss any case details or sleeping arrangements over the phones, and the PR representative reported back to Walter White, the executive secretary of the NAACP, that “the situation in the Columbia Court House is so grave that anything may happen at any time.”
White issued a memorandum to NAACP attorneys, demanding “no telephone calls be put through to Columbia or even to Nashville [where Marshall was staying] unless and until Thurgood says that it is safe to do so.” White noted that “we are dealing with a very desperate crowd” and want nothing to “jeopardize the lives of anyone, particularly persons as close and as important to us as Thurgood and his three associates.” White even contacted the U.S. attorney general’s office and warned that if anything happened to Marshall while he was in Tennessee, it would “create a nation-wide situation of no mean proportions.”Gilbert King, Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America (New York: Harper-Collins, 2012; Kindle reprint 2013), 7-9.