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Thinking Out Loud

Thurgood Marshall, America’s Promise, and the “Devil in the Grove”

by Michael Jinkins | Feb 25, 2013

After a night of serious drinking at an American Legion hall dance in Lake County, Florida, one mid-summer evening in 1949, a 17-year-old girl named Norma Lee (Tyson) Padgett and her estranged husband, Willie Padgett, reported that they had been the victims of a violent attack by a group of young Black men. The young woman claimed she had been raped, though physical evidence did not support her claim.

The truth was both much simpler and, because of the time and place in which these young people all lived, much more complicated. In fact, the young white couple, whose car had stalled on a rural road, had been the beneficiaries of the kindness of two young army veterans, both African American, who happened to be driving on the same road as the couple, saw their stalled car, and stopped to help. But after these two young Black men were unable to get the car restarted – and after suffering verbal abuse and racial epithets as recompense for their labors – one of the Black men retaliated, leaving Willie on the ground.

Gilbert King, a journalist who has written on legal history for the New York Times and the Washington Post, and who tells this story in his gripping book, Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America, describes the scene: “The two friends stood for a moment, their eyes set on a motionless Willie Padgett lying sprawled in the grass beside a pasture fence. They hadn’t hurt him too badly, and he’d had it coming, but this was Lake County, and they could see the picture. Cross a white man wrong in these parts and you’re like to find your own black self lying dead in a ditch. Norma Lee Padgett, still clutching the near-empty bottle of whiskey, steadied herself on the sand and clay. Bathed in the bright moonlight and the glow from the Mercury’s headlights, she knew. She knew nothing good would come of this. They all knew.”

The wrath of a notoriously violent sheriff, Willis V. McCall, was unleashed as soon as the couple made their claims, as was the brutality of the Ku Klux Klan. Homes were burned. Innocent men were murdered, and families were driven from the area. And, upon this stage, strewn with shattered lives, stepped a weary man from New York City, a lawyer for the NAACP, already deeply invested in other cases around the country, including the landmark case which he would argue before the Supreme Court of the United States, “Brown v. Board of Education.” Ignoring threats and in the face of harrowing violence – which had already claimed the life of one of the NAACP’s dedicated associates in Florida – future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, “Mr. Civil Rights,” took up this case personally and saw it to its end in a way that helped to change race relations throughout the country.

Reading how this story unfolded is worth your time. And I commend Gilbert King’s book to you. But I would like to reflect on the story just a moment to understand a larger historical point.

In his most recent book, The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation, Stephen Prothero assembles a sort of canon of American civil religion, a collection of nationally-sacred texts, arranged thematically as the Christian Bible is arranged from Genesis to Epistles, including Laws, Chronicles, Psalms, Prophets, and Gospels. Genesis includes “The Declaration of Independence.” In the “Law” section, we find the U.S. Constitution and “Brown v. Board of Education.” Among the prophets we find Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech, “I Have a Dream.” And in the epistles we have Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

When we place in the same frame these astonishing texts and the story Gilbert King tells, the faith African Americans have placed in the deepest, foundational legal ideals of this country even when the practices of those charged with shaping, adjudicating, and enforcing specific laws have so often betrayed the ideals themselves, comes clearly into focus.

Thus, Dr. King, in his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, says, “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Standing in the shadow of Abraham Lincoln, Dr. King said: “In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check.”

When a decade later, another great African-American leader, educator and legislator Barbara Jordan, said, one mid-summer evening in 1974, “My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total,” she was articulating the same hope in the fundamental claims of our republic that drove Thurgood Marshall to get off a plane in Florida to do battle with those who had perverted justice during that other mid-summer evening in 1949. It was the same hope that compelled Dr. King to have more confidence in America’s promises than many thought realistic.

If there is anything the civil rights movement should have taught us it is that we should not give up on our country to live up to its ideals. One certainly can grow weary in the struggle toward fulfillment of those ideals, because the struggle is long; but there is no room for cynicism in a nation of people who have, against all odds, been roused again and again by Lincoln’s “better angels,” and Jefferson’s love for freedom, and King’s faith in a hate-conquering Love to find in our founding not an excuse for self-indulgence and license, but a call to the common good.

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