Gilbert King is the author of Devil in the Grove, and The Execution of Willie Francis, and is a featured contributor to Smithsonian magazine’s Past Imperfect.  He lives in New York City.

Gilbert King is the author of Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2013. A New York Times bestseller, the book was also named runner-up for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize for non-fiction and was nominated for an Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime. King is originally from Schenectady, New York. He has written about Supreme Court history and the death penalty for the New York Times and the Washington Post, and he is a featured contributor to Smithsonian magazine and The Marshall Project. His earlier book, The Execution of Willie Francis was published in 2008. He lives in New York City with his wife, two daughters, and a French Bulldog named Louis.

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FAQ for Devil in the Grove

How did you become interested in this story?

Several years ago, I was at the Library of Congress doing research for my last book, The Execution of Willie Francis, when I came across some of Thurgood Marshall’s memos about Willie Francis.  They were all about managing the media and working behind the scenes, using connections to rally movie stars, politicians, and religious heads to lobby, strike deals or exert pressure.  I was struck by how resourceful, sophisticated, and ahead of his time Marshall was, especially since the NAACP was always short on funds.  Just out of curiosity, I started going through more of Marshall’s personal papers and case files and I happened to stumble across the Groveland Boys case.  I ended up staying in Washington for another week, reading the files.  I was absolutely hooked and completely shocked that, considering how big and dramatic it was at the time, I’d never heard of the case.  I knew, even before I finished writing Willie Francis, that I wanted to tell the story of Thurgood Marshall and the Groveland Boys next.  

Why is the Groveland Boys case important?

I think the Groveland case is important because it demonstrates all of Marshall’s legal talents in the prime of his career as a lawyer.   He’s investigating the crime, cross-examining witnesses, making closing arguments, bringing the case before the Supreme Court, and working feverishly behind the scenes to stop the State of Florida from sending innocent young men to the electric chair.   And he’s doing all of this when Sheriff Willis McCall and the KKK are killing the people involved in the case and threatening Marshall as well.  It was as though Marshall was practicing law in a terrorist state.

Because I was fortunate to view the unredacted FBI files and Legal Defense Fund Files, which hadn’t been seen by anyone since Marshall and his lawyers at the time, I was able to present a behind-the-scenes view of the most important American lawyer in 20th century, through the lens of this one exciting but horribly violent sex case.  To use a sports metaphor, for me it was like finding lost or never-before-seen documentary footage of Babe Ruth from his great 1927 season with the New York Yankees.   Combing through the minutes from LDF strategy meetings and reading witness statements, correspondence, and FBI field reports was like a storyteller’s dream come true.  It was all right there, and I had one of the most colorful and dynamic characters in American history to work with.

What was the most challenging part of writing Devil in the Grove?  

There were two.  The first was gaining access to the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund files.  The LDF is not a governmental organization and is not subject to Freedom of Information Act requests.  There are still lawyer/client confidentiality issues involved, and it was tricky.  It took years to get this permission, and I wasn’t sure I’d even get it.  When it looked like I might finally be given access to the files, HarperCollins was kind enough to give me a six-month extension for delivery. In the end, the LDF sent a staff lawyer in to vet the files, and I was extremely fortunate to finally see them.  I could not be more grateful, as there were several people from the LDF who went above and beyond their call of duty.  I like to think that they too were caught up in the story and wanted it to be told.

The second challenging part of writing this book was the haunting knowledge that the alleged rape victim in this case, Norma Padgett, is still alive and hadn’t talked to anyone about the case in sixty years.  I felt I had to contact her. It took a long time to find out where she was, and an even longer time to build up the nerve to head south to meet her. This type of research can be intrusive and uncomfortable, but I thought I had to at least try.  The only way to meet Norma was to show up at her doorstep, and I’m glad I did, even though the meeting didn’t prove to be quite as fruitful as I had hoped.

What was the most surprising and troubling thing you learned in writing your book?

By far the most troubling thing I learned while working on this book was the extent to which the Florida Klan had its hands all over this case, as well as how the highest levels of government were complicit in maintaining the economic stranglehold on blacks.  One FBI agent complains in a memo that agents knew who killed Harry T. Moore and they managed to get indictments against several klansmen for perjury, confident that they would eventually build a case for murder.  But the indictments were ultimately quashed, he complained, for the “tranquility of the South.”  Certainly Sheriff Willis McCall will go down in as one of the most heinous figures in civil rights history, but I think when readers see that the FBI, the Justice Department, and the U.S. Attorney’s office were, at times, not motivated by equal justice for all, they’ll begin to gain an appreciation for what Thurgood Marshall and his team were up against in this case, and in the United States as well. 

What will readers learn about Thurgood Marshall in reading Devil in the Grove?

I hope readers gain a better, richer understanding of the lawyer, Thurgood Marshall in the years leading up to Brown v. Board, and the impact he had on American life through his victories in court, as well as the dignity, grace, and knowledge he carried with him, from the smallest courtrooms in the South, right up to the U.S. Supreme Court.  I think you can learn a lot about America by studying a spectacular but forgotten criminal case like Groveland.  Fifty years from now, someone will write a thrilling narrative about the O.J. Simpson case, and if it’s done well, readers will not only be spellbound, but they will learn more about justice, race, politics, money, celebrity, and general life in America at the close of the 20th century than any textbook could ever teach.  I know that in researching and writing Devil in the Grove, I learned so much about America in the years following World War II, and it was obvious to me very early in the process that Thurgood Marshall truly was, as civil rights pioneer John Lewis said, “the Founding Father of the New America.”

Gilbert King

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