A thoroughgoing study of one of the most important civil-rights cases argued by Thurgood Marshall in dismantling Jim Crow strictures.
“Mr. Civil Rights” was mid-career in 1949 as special council to the Legal Defense Fund (of the NAACP) when the case of four young black men facing the death penalty for the rape of a white woman in Groveland, Fla., riveted his attention. Yet in order for the LDF to accept the case, it had to fulfill three requirements, as delineated by Marshall and explained in Smithsonian contributor King’s (The Execution of Willie Francis: Race, Murder, and the Search for Justice in the American South, 2008) excellent account: There was injustice because of race or color; the man was innocent; and there was a real possibility of establishing precedent in the courts. Essentially, 17-year-old Norma Lee Padgett, married but separated from her husband, claimed that four black men had abducted and raped her after a dance she attended with her husband. In fact, three of the suspects—Walter Irvin, Charles Greenlee and Sam Shepherd—were arbitrarily picked up by Sheriff Willis McCall, a ringleader in the local Ku Klux Klan and friend of the powerful citrus growers of central Florida, summarily tortured in the basement of the jailhouse, from which “confessions” were then wrought, and paraded for the press. The final suspect, Ernest Thomas, had been hunted down in a cypress swamp and shot dead. Through the NAACP’s Florida network, Marshall became involved in the case, appealing the initial guilty verdict for Shepherd and Irvin all the way to the Supreme Court, which overturned the convictions in Shepherd v. Florida in 1951. Yet McCall held the last word: He and his deputy not only drove the two suspects outside of town and shot them (Shepherd died instantly), but pursued Irvin even after the Florida governor pardoned him in 1955. King traces the pernicious tentacles of bigotry and expertly depicts the role of the press, the cast of characters and the entire contextual story of civil-rights law and the NAACP.
Deeply researched and superbly composed.