In suspense driven, True Crime mode King tells the story of Thurgood Marshall’s famous legal victory in the case of 4 young black men accused of raping a young white woman in the small town of Groveland, Florida, 1949.
It’s a great story and King uses foreshadowing, dialogue, cliff-hanger section endings and other devices to turn it into a page turner. Marshall going on to become the first African-American Associate of Justice on the US Supreme Court makes it even more interesting. There are usually no spoilers in non-fiction – the tale has often been told in the media or schools – but this is one of those times when I didn’t know the details of the ending and really wanted to let them unfold in King’s capable hands. Wow!!
The narrative is of mixed genre, it’s not only a True Crime tale, although I suppose it’s basically that (it won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 for General Nonfiction), nor is it a biography of Marshall although there is a lot about him, and it’s not an outline of Jim Crow laws and their demise, but this brief sketch is part of that much larger story. This is a history focused on a specific legal case defended by a great lawyer working in general to overturn the race-based discriminatory laws prevalent in the South at the time.
Following an attention grabbing Prologue where we are given a bit of Marshall’s background in Civil Rights, lynchings and the law, King opens with 25 acquittals of Black defendants in a Columbia, Tennessee race riot case only one year prior to the Groveland arrests. Marshall was integral in that case so it’s a good opening. Chapter 2 concerns Marshall’s life in New York, his work with the NAACP and other related matters. In Chapter 3 the story of Norma Lee and Willie Padgett begins to unfold – stuck on the road, helped by blacks, then accusing, but the bulk of the chapter concerns more background on Marshall.
It’s in Chapter 4 that the story of the arrests in Groveland really gets going after Ernest, a would-be suspect escapes and Charles Greenlee is arrested along with two local boys. Now Sheriff Willis McCall enters the picture and it is through King’s depiction of McCall I see some complexities emerge along with “the Devil.”. The violence is horrific but never over done as the suspense builds and continues, ebbs for a brief digressions into other similar cases, brief biographical information, social attitudes, voting laws, the Ku Klux Klan. The the suspense is back building again right through the last pages.
The book is exceptionally well researched and the source notes show that. The few photos add interest. All in all the book makes me want to know more and get involved.