On a hot Florida Friday night in mid-July of 1949, Willie Haven Padgett had little on his mind but a night of dancing and drinking and whatever else that might lead to as he picked up Norma Lee Tyson. After a night of fun at the American Legion Hall in Clermont, they left to head home. Neither they nor the little community of Groveland, Florida, could have had any idea how all of their lives would change in the course of a few hours.
On the way home, Padgett pulled off the road onto a quiet, sandy driveway, where his Ford’s engine rattled noisily and died and his tires sank into the sand. As Norma waited for him to turn the car around, Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvin, two black army veterans, were headed over to Eatonville, an all-black town where they could enjoy a night away from the segregated tensions of Groveland and the surrounding towns. Coming across Padgett and Tyson, the two men stopped to help. Before long, however, Padgett’s deep-seated racism emerged in his attitude and in his remarks to the pair; Shepherd decked Padgett, and he and Irvin knew in an instant that nothing good would come of this event. In a matter of days, Shepherd, Irvin and two other young black men, Charles Greenlee and Ernest Thomas—who became known as the Groveland Boys—stood accused and eventually convicted of raping Norma Lee Tyson.
With rich detail and drawing upon never-before-seen material from the FBI archives, Gilbert King (The Execution of Willie Francis) intersperses the sordid features of this tale of Southern injustice—the many trials and appeals, the eventual acquittal of Shepherd and Irvin, Shepherd’s murder by a disgruntled sheriff—with the story of Thurgood Marshall, the future Supreme Court justice, then a highly regarded NAACP lawyer who worked tirelessly to acquit the four men. Marshall emerges as a crusader, deeply committed to equal opportunity for blacks, who operated on the principle that “laws can not only provide concrete benefits, they can even change the hearts of men—some men, anyhow—for good or evil.” With a cast of characters that seem to come straight out of the pages of an Erskine Caldwell novel—corrupt sheriff Willis McCall; a shady prosecutor; everyday workers who emerge at night in the robes of the KKK—Devil in the Grove is an engrossing chronicle of a little-heard story from the pre-Civil Rights era.