Jan 10 2013

The Night They Almost Lynched Thurgood Marshall in Tennessee…

I just finished a really terrific book titled “Devil in the Grove” by Gilbert King. In it, he recounts a little known incident that took place in Florida in 1949. Four young men were falsely accused of raping a white teenager named Norma Padgett. They came to be known as the Groveland Four. I will write more about this case and the book at a later date.

Today I want to focus on the main protagonist of King’s book. Thurgood Marshall, known as “Mr. Civil Rights,” came to Lake County, Florida to defend the young men from almost certain execution. King paints the most vivid portrait of pre-Supreme Court Justice Marshall that I have ever read. King reveals that Marshall was haunted by images of lynchings throughout his early career as a civil rights lawyer.

One particular image was recurring — it was of a black man hanging from a rope of a tree in Florida. What Marshall could not erase from his mind were the smiling or serene faces of white children who were witness to the torture. Below is the particular image that he could not shake.


King (2012) writes about this in “Devil in the Grove:”

The photographs were always horrifying: shirtless black victims, their bodies bloodied, eyes bulging from their sockets. Of all the lynching photos Marshall had seen, though, it was the image of Rubin Stacy strung up by his neck on a Florida pine tree that haunted him most when he traveled at night into the South. It wasn’t the indentation of the rope that had cut into the flesh below the dead man’s chin, or even the bullet holes riddling his body, that caused Marshall, drenched now in sweat, to stir in his sleep. It was the virtually angelic faces of the white children, all of them dressed in their Sunday clothes, as they posed, grinning and smiling, in a semicircle around Rubin Stacy’s strung- up corpse. In that horrid indifference to human suffering lay the legacy of yet another generation of white children, who, in turn, would without conscience prolong the agony of an entire, other race. “I could see my dead body lying in some place where they let white kids out of Sunday School to come and look at me, and rejoice,” Marshall said of the dream (p.3).

Marshall was consistently in danger as he traveled through the South in the 1930s through the 50s. It was in Columbia Tennessee in 1946 that he almost found himself a victim of his most persistent fear. He narrowly escaped a lynching. Marshall had come to Columbia to defend several men who were accused of instigating a race riot. For an introduction to the 1946 Columbia Race Riots, watch this 15 minute video narrated by the wonderful Dr. Carol Anderson of Emory University who tells the story with gusto (seriously):

Marshall and his colleagues from the NAACP performed masterfully in court and were able to get acquittals for nearly two dozen black defendants. This was an unprecedented victory. Marshall, his colleagues Maurice Weaver & Zephaniah Alexander Looby, and a reporter named Harry Raymond immediately made a bee line out of the courthouse when the final verdicts were read. They wanted to get out of town as soon as possible. As the four of them piled into a car, Marshall headed out of Columbia. King (2012) writes about what happened next:

“The sedan had just crossed a bridge over Duck River when they came upon a car parked in the middle of the road. Marshall honked the horn and waited, but the car did not move, so he drove around it and headed for Nashville. Inside the sedan it was quiet; unspoken went the fear that something was amiss. Then, piercing the silence, the sound of a siren screamed from behind (p.15-16).”

They were being followed by three police cars. Marshall pulled over and the car was quickly surrounded by 8 men, some who were in police uniforms. They were ordered out of the car and then accused of drinking in a “dry” county. Police officers searched their car and found nothing. Later, officers approached Marshall and told him to put his hands up. He was being arrested from “drunken driving.” Marshall had of course not been drinking at all. With guns drawn, they forced Marshall into the backseat of a “nonofficial sedan” and placed him under arrest. They told the other men to head out of town. Marshall had no idea where he was being taken. King describes what happened next:

The car began to slow. The lawmen were quietly mumbling and pointing: then the driver turned left down a dirt road, toward “the famous Duck River.” Marshall knew that nothing good ever happened when police cars drove black men down unpaved roads. He knew that the bodies of blacks — the victims of lynchings and random murders — had been discovered along these riverbanks for decades. And it was at the bottom of Duck River that, during the trial, the NAACP lawyers had been told their bodies would end up.

The sedan was lumbering forward, bouncing down the dirt road, when Marshall caught his first glimpse of the men waiting down by the river. The headlights illuminated their stern faces. The car slowed, then stopped. Suddenly headlights appeared behind them. Had word spread about the lynchings of the NAACP lawyer? Glimpsing the glare of lights behind them, one of the policemen in Marshall’s car stormed out of the sedan to confront the driver of the second car. Marshall craned his neck to see; he recognized the limp.

It was Looby!

You should read the book to learn what happens next. Suffice it to say that Thurgood Marshall escaped with his life that night. This was in no small measure due to the courage of his NAACP associates who refused to obey the orders of Columbia police officers that night. It’s impossible to imagine what kind of country this would be had Thurgood Marshall’s life come to an end in the Duck River that night in 1946.