We are all very familiar with the well-publicized images of discrimination from the 1950’s and early 1960’s: the Whites Only toilets and drinking fountains; the pressure hoses and German shepherds attacking children and adults; the refusal to serve “Negroes” at restaurants and hotels. We are also intimately familiar with the abuse heaped upon Jackie Robinson when he dared integrate the national pastime. We see those images, shake our heads and wonder how people could have been so obtuse.
What people are less familiar with is the systematic brutality that legally elected governments throughout the South supported and condoned once Reconstruction ended and Jim Crow began. The closest analogy to the situation in The South during those awful decades is Nazi Germany, and as Gilbert King so vividly demonstrates in Devil in the Grove, this is not an exaggeration.
The orange groves that provided Americans with their morning glass of Minute Maid were virtual concentration camps from which there was little chance of escape. An African-American who dared to venture out on his own and build a small farm would likely see that farm burned to the ground by white mobs insistent on crushing any signs of “uppityness.” Legal protections were meaningless; African-Americans could be arrested at any time for any reason or no reason at all, taken to jails and beaten to bruised and bloody pulps. When those defendants received their day in court, the verdict had already been determined.
In such an environment, it took tremendous courage for Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP legal team to travel to The South and try to defend those clients. In many ways, the effort was the definition of a thankless job. In criminal cases involving alleged rape or murder, the team focused entirely on establishing grounds for appeal, as they had no hope of victory. The best they could do for an innocent defendant was to work for a sentence of life imprisonment instead of electrocution, and such victories were rare indeed.
Gilbert King’s post-war tale of four innocent men accused of raping a white woman is a shocking story that unfolds with the excitement of a detective thriller. His ability to keep the reader fully engrossed in the tale while structuring the story to elicit several gasps at stunning turns of events is exceptional. While occasionally I found it challenging to keep all the names straight, that is a minor distraction from the sheer power of this incredible story.
Devil in the Grove left me with several indelible impressions. The first is the admiration for Thurgood Marshall’s strategic brilliance and incredible patience in working through the legal system to secure the rights that The Constitution had already guaranteed. The second is a feeling of combined dismay and terror that human beings could be capable of such sickening hatred.
The third has to do with The South itself. Ever since the founding of this country, The South has been the millstone around the neck and the chain around the ankle that has stood in the way of human progress in this country. The inherent conservatism of the region and its insistence on holding onto fundamentally bankrupt traditions has hampered not only progress in social matters but in economic matters as well. The great economic boom of the latter half of the 19th century was made possible in large part because Lincoln took full advantage of the fact that secession had removed a large body of obstructionist southern legislators from Congress and he was able to pass several initiatives (like the Transcontinental Railroad) that made America a major economic power.
Although the days of lynching are behind us, I still see the southern states as hopelessly behind the times, still defending the Confederate flag, still dominated by reactionary thinking, still confusing the separation of church and state, and still blocking social progress. Republican gerrymandering has managed to create a series of arch-conservative legislatures that will be in place for decades to come, denying women’s rights and voting rights with scarcely disguised racism and sexism. Only in The South could a racist psychopath like George Zimmerman have gotten away with murder and find himself celebrated as a hero for standing up for property rights. While there are other states in our union who share similar conservative values and whose attitudes towards race, gender equality and sexual preferences are questionable at best, those states tend to be more independent in their thinking and not part of a large region bound by outdated and harmful traditions.
I’ve often heard about The New South. That’s a marketing campaign, not reality. The “Whites Only” signs are gone, but the resistance to progress is as strong as ever. Yes, The South has made progress, but you have to remember that they weren’t even close to the starting line when the race began. While they may have inched past that line with the stubbornness of a tortoise, the rest of the world has moved further and further ahead.
The tortoise won the race, but like the traditions of The South, that was pure fable.