Gilbert King

Devil in the Grove

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  • Features 22 chapter summaries and 4 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by a professional writer with a PhD in Creative Writing
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Devil in the Grove Summary & Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 44-page guide for “Devil in the Grove” by Gilbert King includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 22 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Racism/Prejudice and Scapegoating.

Plot Summary

Devil in the Grove by Gilbert King, subtitled Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America, is an account of an important but relatively little-known legal case that paved the way for the advances of the civil rights era.

The book begins with the story behind the case: In July 1949, in Groveland, Florida, a 17-year-old girl named Norma Lee Padgett claims a group of four young black men raped her one night in her car. Although Padgett’s claims are open to question, racial prejudice is so strong in Florida that the four men are considered guilty before tried, and the Ku Klux Klan enact violence and vandalism against local black residents. One of the four suspects, who originally escaped, is captured and killed by police, while the others are savagely beaten.

Thurgood Marshall is an attorney for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), whose successful handling of race-related cases has earned him the nickname “Mr. Civil Rights” (353). Assembling a team of fellow NAACP lawyers, Marshall takes on the defense of the three remaining Groveland Boys. In doing so, he puts himself at considerable risk in a South gripped by the Klan and racism. Having once narrowly escaped being lynched, Marshall is well aware of the danger.

With his lawyer colleagues—including Franklin Williams, Jack Greenberg, and Alex Akerman—Marshall argues the case first in Lake County, Florida, next at the Florida Supreme Court. At this retrial, two of the remaining Groveland Boys are reconvicted, with the younger one, Charles Greenlee, escaping the electric chair and receiving a sentence of life imprisonment. The case then goes to the U.S. Supreme Court, which overturns the convictions of Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvin because of gross violations of justice.

While Sheriff Willis V. McCall is transporting Shepherd and Irvin to their retrial in Marion County, Florida, he shoots them; Shepherd dies and Irvin survives. An unapologetic racist who nonetheless quells an attempt of the KKK to lynch the defendants, McCall is a complex villain in Devil in the Grove. The shooting, which McCall claims was in self-defense, galvanizes outrage across the country and even abroad. Further instances of racial violence, including the assassination of a Florida NAACP leader, cause even more ferment, making for an intense lead-up to the retrial for the remaining Groveland Boy, Walter Irvin.

Thanks to investigations by the NAACP, the FBI, and various journalists, a clearer picture of the Groveland case emerges. It appears that the case has less to do with an alleged rape than with many white citizens’ desire to keep blacks in a low social status in Florida, where the economy is largely supported by labor in citrus groves. The case also points out uncomfortable truths about white men’s determination to uphold the ideal of “southern white womanhood” at any cost.

Written in the style of a gripping detective story by a specialist in U.S. Supreme Court history, Devil in the Grove won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction. King presents a complex, comprehensive narrative that moves from the police stations and courtrooms of the South to Harlem and the NAACP headquarters in New York, delineating the countless personalities involved in a strenuous battle for human rights and dignity.

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