As the sun descended in the west, a restless crowd gathered before a cedar tree.
There was a chill in the December air, and it was thick with the tangy smell of sweat, fear and anticipation for what was about to happen. Boxed in by cars, a young 20 year old man named Cordie Cheek stood before a ladder with a rope around his neck. A teeming mass of men, women, and children threw epithets at him, and shared a palpable sense that justice was going to be served that night. But no justice this was to be found here.
Cheek had been abducted from the home of some relatives in Nashville, and was brought back to Columbia at gun point. Though surrounded by nearly 200 people, he was alone. Alone amidst smiling faces and bared teeth. He was scared, and he had no one to provide him succor.
Someone removed his pants. A knife was brandished, and its cold steel was pressed against the flesh of his testicles. To the laughter and cheering of multitudes, Cordie Cheek was viciously castrated, providing a libation for the lust of the mob. Blood ran down his legs, and he was forced to ascend the ladder at the base of the tree behind him. His noose having previously been draped over a limb of the cedar, he was pushed into the nothingness with the aid of a long pole. Bombarded by raucous celebration, the flailing legs of Cordie Cheek sprayed blood on the cold, unforgiving earth below him, staining the Tennessee soil a deeper shade of red. From the crowd a gun was produced. Shots were fired into his still warm body, and the gun was passed around the crowd so that others could share in the brutality.
This was 1933. This was the world of Thurgood Marshall.
Showing no sign of abatement, Jim Crow was the cultural paradigm in the South. Cordie Cheek wasn’t the first person to be lynched, and he surely wouldn’t be the last. At least 26 people had been lynched that year. But this lynching laid the foundation for racial tension that would finally explode in the 1946 Columbia Race Riot, which served as an early springboard for the Civil Rights movement. He was murdered 13 years after the Red Summer of 1919, where race riots sprang up all over the country, and an estimated 200 black Americans were murdered in Elaine, Arkansas. 12 years after the Greenwood district of Tulsa, Oklahoma was burned to the ground by a white mob. 10 years after the Rosewood massacre. Slavery still existed as an institution in the South (though under various pseudonyms, such as debt peonage and the Convict Lease program).
This was America. This was the world of Thurgood Marshall.
Devil in the Grove isn’t about Cordie Cheek, and his story is only briefly mentioned here. Cordie Cheek is remarkable for how unremarkable his story was. A young black man accused of assaulting a woman is lynched by a crowd of anonymous white people, and no one is held accountable. Jesse Washington. Ell Persons. George Armwood. Will Brown. Raymond Gunn. Ed Johnson. Alfred Blount. The list is almost endless. It was common for photographs to be taken (though none are known to have been taken at this particular lynching). The lack of identification of assailants was near ubiquitous.
This is the story of Thurgood Marshall, seminal civil rights lawyer and eventual first African American to serve on the Supreme Court. But more specifically, this book is about the Groveland Four, so named because a white woman named Norma Padgett accused four young black men of abducting and raping her. Of the four young African Americans accused of this alleged crime (it’s not only likely that no crime was committed, but that no sexual activity took place on the night in question), one was hunted down and murdered by a white mob, one was executed on the side of a road by the sheriff, a third was shot multiple times by that same sheriff and his deputy, and the fourth (a minor, at the time) spent a couple decades in prison, first on a chain gang, then in a jail cell. All because this woman:
Made an accusation.
This is not simply a case of young men wrongfully accused. This isn’t The Central Park Five, or Serial, or Making a Murderer. This is the frame by which Gilbert King explains the era just before Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and the Civil Rights Act. This isn’t just the story of the Groveland Four. Neither is it the story of Cordie Cheek. Or Isaac Woodard. Or any of the other violations of human dignity recounted here. This is the story of a society that sanctions not just the marginalization of an ethnic group, but encourages and fails to address the repeated and frequent community empowered executions of black men and (occasionally) women. This isn’t just a biography of Thurgood Marshall, this is a story about the world of Thurgood Marshall.
This is a story about the nation that gave birth to Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X, and Ferguson. This is the story of a transition from state sanctioned race-based homicide to federal intervention that failed to actually fix the problem of institutionalized racism and oppression.
The perpetrators of these crimes go unpunished. Sheriff Willis McCall (the man who executed one of the Groveland Four and attempted to murder a second) not only didn’t go to jail, but continued to influence this case and was re-elected sheriff seven more times. He was only prevented from re-election in 1972 because he was too busy fighting allegations that he brutally kicked to death an African American prisoner in his jail (which he was, again, not punished for). He died a free and happy man in 1994, comfortably living on a state highway named in his honor.
As insightful and enlightening as this book is, however, it’s endless recitation of death and brutality sometimes felt disorienting and numbing. I think I understand why Gilbert King filled these pages with so many incidents of crimes perpetrated by white justice, but I think he may have lost the thread a few times. It’s only possible to be effected by brutality so many times before one starts to become inured to unmitigated violence.
But, with that said, this is a highly important and relevant book that I can’t recommend enough.