From the title, this appears to be a book about Thurgood Marshall, widely acclaimed as America’s greatest civil rights lawyer and the first African-American appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. It isn’t. It’s Marshall’s foil—the violently racist sheriff of Lake County, Fla., Willis Virgil McCall—who dominates. He even earns the cover picture. The “Groveland Boys” refers to a notorious 1949 incident from central Florida that saw four black youths accused of raping a white woman. In To Kill a Mockingbird fashion, this was a crime that never happened. Two of the boys did run into Norma Padgett on the night in question. They gave poor white-trash Norma and her husband, Willie, a push when their car wouldn’t start. The two others never even met the couple.
But facts were irrelevant when race and sex clashed in the volatile atmosphere of post-war segregationist Florida. Three of the accused were arrested and a lynch mob formed that night demanding instant justice. McCall made national headlines for disarming the mob on the jailhouse steps. But this apparently heroic act was meant only to put a gloss on the inevitable. McCall and his deputies savagely beat false confessions out of three of the Groveland quartet. They stood idly by as the Ku Klux Klan burned the homes of the accused, along with most of Groveland’s black quarter. They planted evidence to frame the boys and hid real evidence showing no rape had occurred. And just to be sure, McCall later shot and killed one of the accused, ostensibly during an escape attempt.
Marshall works valiantly for his clients, but small victories are the best he can manage: hope for a life sentence rather than the death penalty, national outrage over an obviously corrupt legal system, the final, grudging admiration of the state attorney. It will be many more years before anything resembling true justice is available to wrongly accused blacks in Florida. And McCall? He continued to serve as sheriff until 1972. This is his story, not Marshall’s.