(Gilbert King, HarperCollins Publishers, 2012. ISBN 978-0-06-179228-1)
An unvarnished look at actual Florida history, Devil in the Grove will not be an easy read as it tells the story of four black men accused of raping a white woman (only two of whom had even interacted with the young woman and her husband on that fateful night in July 1949) in Lake County, Florida, a county located to the immediate northwest of Orange County and in the center part of the state, a part resistant to the end to the orders of the U.S. Supreme Court to end segregation.
Spoiler alert: There are no spoiler alerts. This is a story that the author cannot control. He can’t direct the plot away from the sympathetic characters because they don’t deserve their fate. The events really happened and the book will grip you as it takes you through what happened in Lake County against the larger backdrop of the action of the NAACP and its Legal Defense Fund headed by Thurgood Marshall.
It is a story of abusive law enforcement and the way it terrorized people of color in the county, a story of power among the citrus growers and their need for cheap labor, a story of how segregation recreated a system of forced labor after the 13th amendment outlawed slavery, and a story of what happens to those who protest.
Lest you scratch your head in wonder, that you thought the real evil was in the Deep South (and there was real evil there) states of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina, that Florida being ‘south of the South,’ was nothing like them, you might be right in a twisted way: “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.” (pages 169 & 170.)
There was no rape. In describing the events against the larger national backdrop of the NAACP’s legal strategies, the reader gathers a good sense of the times, the struggles, the chaos, the fears, the terror, and the hope that were part of daily life in the South (“Lawyer Marshall is coming”), and the author then personifies those feelings and experiences in the story about Lake County, where the sheriff exercised tyrannical power to the point that people lied for him out of fear for their own lives and that in turn empowered him to be a law unto himself.
Read the book if you don’t understand #blacklivesmatter and why it is the height of stupidity to protest, “But #alllivesmatter.”
Read the book if you think those times are far in the past and we’re better now and we would never acquiesce in the worst violations of human rights.
Read the book and think about those red MAGA hats and what people really want. Fascism and National Socialism (yes, the Hitler and the German Nazis were socialists) will not take root here, but we have our own dark past yearning to break free because we haven’t ever really dealt with it.
No spoiler alert is needed because you know how the story turned out. While the NAACP was successful in overturning the original convictions, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered a new trial. The sheriff collected the two defendants at Raiford (Florida State Prison where death sentences are carried out) and, on the way back to Lake County, was successful in murdering one. The other defendant played dead and survived two bullets from the sheriff and a third shot through his neck by a deputy.
The survivor was reconvicted but received a life sentence that was later commuted. One year after the commutation, he received permission to go back to Lake County to attend the funeral of his uncle. He was found dead within a few hours of his return to Lake County.
If you want to know why I am talking about this book in my new education blog, it is this: this book should be required reading in every U.S. History high school classroom in Florida.
As for me, Devil in the Grove is a cautionary tale about politicians and the power they wield in this state. The politicians who a generation ago would be protecting and enabling the Lake County sheriff, recognizing no bounds on their power and their desire to enrich themselves by it and the exploitation of the vulnerable and poor, these are the ones who have targeted public education for destruction in this state.
They hold the power and will tolerate no dissent. As I am a dissenter, this book is a cautionary tale about the risks of fighting back against the privatization schemes such as those manifested in the so-called Schools of Hope.