The Case Thurgood Marshall Never Forgot

Fifty years ago today, Thurgood Marshall became a Supreme Court justice. He kept telling the story of the Groveland Four

Marshall was the first African-American Supreme Court Justice. Library of Congress

Earlier this year, Florida’s House of Representatives issued a formal apology to the descendants of the Groveland Boys. Thurgood Marshall might have been pleased to see a historic wrong acknowledged.

On this day in 1967, Marshall was confirmed as the first African-American Supreme Court justice. More than 15 years earlier, he had defended the Groveland Boys' little-remembered case. It's not commonly cited in histories of his life, even though he is credited as one of the most important lawyers of twentieth-century America, and the case stayed with him his whole career.

In 1951, Marshall was the director-counsel of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Legal Defense Fund. He was known colloquially as “Mr. Civil Rights.” He was already preparing for Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark desegregation case for which he shaped the NAACP's legal strategy on the doctrine of “separate but equal.”

“Asked by Justice Felix Frankfurter during the argument what he meant by ‘equal,’ Mr. Marshall replied, ‘Equal means getting the same thing, at the same time and in the same place,’” Linda Greenhouse wrote for The New York Times in Marshall’s 1993 obituary. The Groveland Boys certainly did not get equal treatment when they were falsely accused of raping a white woman.  

The case shaped Marshall’s perception of himself as a lawyer and a civil rights crusader, writes author Gilbert King in Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America. It unfolded in Groveland, Florida. A young white couple–Willie and Norma Padgett–accused four black men–Samuel Shepherd, Walter Irvin, Charles Greenlee and Ernest Thomas– of stealing their car and sexually assaulting Norma Padgett, who was in the passenger seat when they drove it away. 

“Within hours, Greenlee, Shepherd and Irvin were in jail,” according to PBS. Thomas ran, but was murdered by a mob. The other three narrowly escaped that fate–a mob of more than 500 men showed up at the prison, demanding that the three men be released to them, after which they would likely have been lynched

The NAACP intervened early in the case to defend the three living men. The three men were quickly convicted by a biased jury, despite evidence indicating they were elsewhere at the time of the assault, PBS writes. Irvin and Shepherd were given the death sentence, and Greenlee was given a prison sentence. Irvin and Shepherd challenged their convictions, which were upheld by the Florida Supreme Court but overturned by the United States Supreme Court. At some point, Irvin and Shepherd were shot by sheriff Willis McCall “while being transported from state prison to the local jail for a hearing,” writes William Grimes for The New York Times. Only Irvin survived.   

Marshall, who was already well known as a lawyer, stepped in when the case went to the Supreme Court–even though another NAACP organizer had already been killed by the Ku Klux Klan over the case, and Marshall was in significant personal danger. Because of his other legal activities and his prominence, the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund wanted him not to go, King told Democracy Now. "He just said, 'Look, these cases are just [as] important. These cases save lives," King said. Throughout his career, Marshall travelled to take on criminal defense cases that were similiar to this one, at great personal risk. "They mattered to him," King said.

Irvin was retried in Marion County, Florida, in a case that by this point was gaining international attention, PBS writes. But despite a change of venue and the new defense, Irvin was again found guilty. The two remaining men, Greenlee and Irvin, both served prison time.

“Despite the fact that Marshall brought the Groveland case before the U.S. Supreme Court, it is barely mentioned in civil rights history, law texts, or the many biographies of Thurgood Marshall,” King writes. “Nonetheless, there is not a Supreme Court justice who served with Marshall or a lawyer who clerked for him that did not hear his renditions, always colorfully told, of the Groveland story.”  

For Marshall, King writes, the Groveland case was a self-defining moment, when he placed himself in personal danger to seek justice. It was this spirit that stayed with him as he continued to serve as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court, where he was known as “the Great Dissenter.”

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