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Lead Us On

By Benj DeMott

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ first take on Obama’s impromptu speech after the Trayvon Martin verdict still seems on point: “No president has ever done this before. It does not matter that the competition is limited. The impact of the highest official in the country directly feeling your pain, because it is his pain, is real. And it is happening now. And it is significant.” But Coates’ clarity about wha’ppen is already at risk given news cycle mindlessness.

Though it’s not just spin that whips Americans beyond Obama-on-Trayvon. As a modern commentator on Burke had it recently: “Whatever the speed of the news, the speed of understanding never seems to change, perhaps because understanding is shaped not by our ability to get the news but by our ability to digest it.” That ability, in turn, depends on a sense of the past (per the President’s words) “that doesn’t go away.” Or to borrow a line from an anonymous friend of a Firster: “If you don’t know any history, you don’t know anything at all.” The following addendum to Obama’s (and Coates’) gutsy attempts to digest news from Florida (and D.C.) was sparked by an anecdote of Thurgood Marshall’s from back in the day:

Franklin Delano Roosevelt…was less than enthralled by his wife’s alliance with the NAACP, and the White House attempted to maintain a distance between the president and Eleanor’s activism on behalf of blacks. [Thurgood] Marshall himself had felt the president’s chill when Attorney General Francis Biddle phoned FDR to discuss the NAACP’s involvement in a race case in Virginia. At Biddle’s instruction, Marshall picked up an extension phone to listen in, only to hear FDR exclaim, “I warned you not call me again about any of Eleanor’s niggers. Call me one more time and you are fired.” Marshall later recalled, “The President only said ‘nigger’ once, but once was enough for me.”

Marshall’s tale hints at how Obama’s presence represents a kind of progress that goes right by many white progressives. It drives home the singularity of Obama’s historic attempt to speak for Afro-Americans as he evoked from within the pain felt by the black nation in the wake of the Martin verdict.

Obama not only kept faith with his base, he tightened his connection with them by amping up his original familial formulation (which had caused Foxy types to freak a year ago): “You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.” Obama then went on to prove black solidarity was a prerequisite for any morally complex (and comprehensive) response to the case. Obama didn’t talk long but he didn’t slip any issue. Unphased by right-wing talking points, he allowed that Trayvon was more likely “statistically” to have been “shot by a peer.” But he shared Afro-Americans’ feeling for the history behind “black-on-black” violence:

We understand that some of the violence that takes place in poor black neighborhoods around the country is born out of a very violent past in this country, and that the poverty and dysfunction that we see in those communities can be traced to a very difficult history. And the fact that sometimes that’s unacknowledged adds to the frustration.

Obama’s high form of identity politics should have a lasting resonance. I’m reminded a Nuyorican friend of mine (who once mused he’d been called “nigger” more often than “spic”) thought the president’s first official written response to George Zimmerman’s acquittal was a non-starter, but he was willing to give Obama time to take in the verdict: “I trust this man.” That trust was vindicated when Obama got real live, daring to wing his way (with his better angels?) through Afro-American movements of mind.

Of course there are non-believers out there. And they’re on the left as well as right. Take the white liberal Huffington Poster who traduced Obama’s comments. According to this critic, the heavy takeaway from the speech was a Clintonian concession: “Obama rejects the possibility of ‘some grand, new federal program.’” What Obama actually said was: “You know, I’m not naive about the prospects of a brand-new federal program.” He wasn’t buying into G.O.P. contempt for Big Government. (After all this president has sought to revive National Greatness Liberalism.) He was facing reality. Given the make-up of the Congress, his legislative options are limited.

That huffy poster sought to diminish Obama’s act of witness after the Martin verdict by invoking other presidents—Ike, JFK and LBJ—who “used similar disturbing events as a stimulus to take strong executive action to combat racism in the United States.” His gambit takes me back to the financial crisis when righteous leftists locked on invidious comparisons between an audacious FDR and a craven Obama. I wonder how they’d handle Marshall’s memory of mixed messages from FDR’s (and Eleanor Roosevelt’s) White House?

White Devils

That Marshall anecdote comes from Devil in the Grove—Gilbert King’s breathtaking account of the NAACP’s resistance to crimes against humanity committed at the dawn of the Civil Rights era by a sheriff, deputies and plain white folks in Groveland, Florida.[1] As an Amazon reviewer of Devil pointed out, Sanford—the town where Trayvon Martin was shot—“is a half-hour drive from Groveland.” Gilbert King himself has been tempted to place the Martin case in relation to that of “the Groveland Boys”—four young black men who became targets when a young white woman cried rape the morning after a bad night out with her on-again-off-again husband in 1949.

Her claim—unsupported by medical or any other evidence—started a chain of horrors. A black neighborhood was razed, innocent men were tortured into confessions, two—and possibly three—of the Groveland Boys were murdered (the fourth had to do years of hard labor). Their supporters suffered heavy collateral damage such as the death by firebombing of NAACP stalwart Harry T. Moore (who has been called “America’s first Civil Rights martyr”).

The most devilish of the NAACP’s enemies in Groveland was Sheriff Willis V. McCall—a man who made “Bull Connor look like Barney Fife” (as Gilbert King noted in a Times interview). Giving the lie to s’all Good Old Boys like Haley Barbour who claim racism was over down home long before the end of the 60s, McCall would remain in power until 1972 when he was suspended from his office and went on to lose a close election—after he “kicked to death a mentally retarded black prisoner.” McCall beat the charges (as he survived countless investigations for misconduct during his 28 year tenure of terror). Knowledge of his murderous career—and that of his deputies—adds weight from the past to ironies in George Zimmerman’s notorious line to the police dispatcher: “These assholes, they always get away.”

Zimmerman and his fellow travelers need some serious lessons about who’s gotten away with murder in his neighborhood. If the Groveland Boys’ story were part of America’s—or at least Florida’s—lore, Trayvon Martin might be alive today. Devil could still turn around watchmen at risk of becoming the next Zimmerman. Its narrative has the hooks to pull in even readers addicted to the pure Rush of right-wing crack-raps about black predators and white victims.

Dream on? Maybe I’m overrating the power of stories. But, on the real side, Devil is full of scenes that could be used to cultivate an uncreated conscience among unconscious white supremacists. Take King’s account of what went down after the Supreme Court overturned the verdict of two of the Groveland Boys, ordering a new trial for Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvin. The vengeful Sheriff McCall arranged to transport the two men from State prison back to his local jail. Along the way, he ordered them out of his car, and shot them in cold blood. Shepherd was gone after McCall fired a “38-caliber round straight through his heart,” but the wounded Irvin managed to play dead until McCall’s deputy, James Yates—another monster—arrived on the scene. Yates shined a flashlight on Irvin and called out to McCall: “This nigger’s not dead. We better kill this son of a bitch.”

King imagines how Thurgood Marshall and other NACCP lawyers must have gasped when the critically wounded Irvin, giving his statement to them from his hospital bed, repeated the deputy’s words. But they hadn’t heard the worst of it…

Irvin resumed, picturing himself lying on the ground and looking up at the deputy standing over him with a pistol in his hand, and without a sound watching the deputy lean down over him and slowly aim the gun. “The Deputy Sheriff then pointed the pistol on me and pulled the trigger, snapped the trigger, and the gun did not shoot, and so he took it back around to the car lights, and looked in it and shined the light in it, and then something they said was about letting it stay cocked, and so he turned it on me again and pulled it again, and that time it fired, and went through here [indicating it went through neck] and then I began to bleed and bleed, out of my nose.”

“Is that Deputy Yates you say?” [One of the lawyers] asked, stunned.

“Yes, sir,” Irvin replied, his voice fading. He paused to catch his breath. “He shot me the third time, but I managed to pull through OK cause I did not say anything and did not let them know that I was not dead and after all the people came, there were lots of people came there, and some of them predicted I was not dead…”

If the sound of Yates’ gun failing to go off became the snap heard round America, it might usefully inhibit a few white trigger fingers. And Devil might just go pop since it’s going to be made into a movie—though no-one should expect too much from Hollywood. In a more perfect union, the book would surely be assigned to high school classes all over America, especially in Florida. I myself tried reading it to my 10 year old son. (A parental decision right up there with showing him Nosferatou.) He was gripped from the first page, which shows the black flag bearing the words “A Man Was Lynched Today” that hung outside the NAACP’s 5th Avenue office whenever The Southern Way of Life had led to domestic terrorism. But after two swatches from the book’s opening chapters, we had to stop as my boy let on he’d had nightmares after both bedtime reads. (When I confessed to Gilbert King the fam had faded out on Devil, he pointed out: “I'm sure your son isn't the first kid to have nightmares about Willis McCall!”)

Despite Devil’s devils, it’s more than an exercise in historical horrorcore. The book is inspiring, though the uplift doesn’t come easy. The martyred Harry T. Moore is just one of a roster of NAACP soldiers who get dap in Devil (though King knows it’s too late for America to give them their due). King is especially acute on Thurgood Marshall’s role in the Resistance to Jim Crow in Groveland and throughout the South. His Marshall is not only “the most important American lawyer of the 20th Century” but a fine and mellow fellow. King’s portrait of the lawyer as a young lion underscores Marshall was born to live large (as even the racist prosecutor of the Groveland Boys came to admit: “Boy, that’s a great man.”).

Marshall, though, is a role player not the hero in Devil’s most compelling moral sequence, which occurred after an agent of Florida’s governor promised Irvin’s defense team their client would get a life sentence (with possibility of parole) instead of the death penalty if he’d plead guilty before a second trial. That deal looked pretty good to Marshall and Irvin’s other lawyers since they knew the trial would take place in a biased venue with a racist judge who was tight with the chief prosecutor. They gave their advice to Irvin who talked over the governor’s offer with his mother and his brother-in-law. Then he came back to Marshall…

“I guess this is the only way out,” Irvin said. “Marshall shrugged. “Well, it’s up to you.” “What do I have to do?” “Nothing. Just stand up there and when they say, ‘Are you guilty or not guilty,’ you say, ‘I’m guilty.’” To clarify, to make certain exactly what his guilty plea would mean, Marshall added: “That you raped that woman.”

“That I raped that whore?” Irvin was shaking his head. “I didn’t and I’m not going to say so.” He had made his decision…

“Won’t say it on myself.” Irwin insisted. Marshall and [NAACP lawyer Jack] Greenberg tried to impress upon their client and his family that they were not going to win this trial in Marion County; they also emphasized there were no guarantees at the Supreme Court. But Walter Irvin was adamant. He wouldn’t admit to rape. They’d have to say that for him, he told his lawyers, who pointed out the judge would accept a guilty plea only from the defendant’s own lips.

Greenberg was dumbfounded by the decision of the steadfast, young defendant “who wouldn’t confess after brutal beatings, and who wouldn’t die after being shot three times.” Marshall too was at a loss for words, but in that moment he knew “damn well that man was innocent.”

Irvin reiterated: “I’ll take a life sentence right now because that’s better than the chair, but if I have to say I had anything to do with that lady, I’m not going to do it. I’m not guilty.”

Irvin landed on death row in 1952 as his lawyers had predicted, though two years later his sentence was commuted by a newly elected governor of Florida who acknowledged the trials of the Groveland Boys had been travesties. Devil’s narrative builds toward that life-saving commutation. The book’s epilogue suggests this small victory marked the beginning of the end of the most extreme forms of legally sanctioned brutality in the Jim Crow South. But, as King sensed, fidelity to fact demands any history of the Groveland Boys not end in triumph. There was no happy ending for Walter Irvin when he went back to Lake County to attend the funeral of his uncle in 1969. Irvin, who’d been living in Miami after being paroled in 1968, “had been back in Willis McCall country but for a few hours when friends and relatives found him apparently sleeping in his car after his drive north; but he wasn’t sleeping. Walter Irvin was dead.” A local female journalist who’d been a player in the Groveland Boys' case raised questions about the Lake County Sheriff Department’s report on Irvin’s death which stated the forty-one year old black male had died of natural causes. Another reporter told her he’d tried to speak to the doctor who’d pronounced Irvin dead: “The doctor had hung up on him.”


Irvin had been required to ask his parole officer for the right to return to Lake County, which means Sheriff McCall may have been alerted to Irvin’s planned visit. Perhaps Irvin deliberately chose to shame the devil, risking the chance of payback. Irvin’s other great refusals of fear remind me of a passage from an autobiography of a Brit who’d been held captive in Lebanon under grim conditions.

As my anger diminished I felt a new and tremendous kind of strength flooding me. The more I was beaten the stronger I seemed to become. It was not the strength of arm nor of body but a huge determination never to give into these men, never to show fear, never to cower in front of them. To take what violence they meted out to me and stand and resist and not allow myself to be humiliated. In that resistance I would humiliate them. There was a part of me they could never bind nor abuse nor take from me. There was a sense of self greater than me which came and filled me in the darkest hours.

Jonathan Glover cited this testimony in Humanity: A Moral History of the 20th Century. Someone writing a moral history of America since the Civil Rights era might invoke Irvin’s choices. Such an author, though, would be able to cite numberless acts of resistance by Afro-Americans. “From humiliation stems grandeur” as a student of Black Atlantic cultures once noted. A remark that seems right on time if you felt (along with the President) “the incredible grace and dignity with which [the family of Trayvon Martin] dealt with the entire situation.” The suffering of Trayvon Martin’s mother has surely filled her “darkest hours” with “a sense of self greater than me”:

At times I feel like I'm a broken vessel. At times I don't know if I'm going or coming. But I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God is using me and God is using my family to make a change, to make a difference…Please use my broken heart to say to yourself, 'We cannot let this happen to anybody else's child.'"

Sybrina Fulton has been calling for repeal of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. She’s acting in the tradition of Thurgood Marshall who famously rejected the “old refrain that you cannot legislate equality.” He held: “Laws not only provide concrete benefits, they can even change the hearts of men—some men, anyhow—for good or evil.” Certain turns in the Groveland Boys' saga back up Marshall’s point. There were white folks in Lake Country who got their minds right. That prosecutor who bowed down to Marshall (and finally copped to the truth Willis McCall “pissed in my whiskey”). That local journalist who started out raging against NAACP interlopers but ended up trying to expose the Lake County Sheriff’s Department's predations. And there was another white lady who sent Marshall the journalist’s newspaper article, suggesting Irvin’s suspicious death should be investigated. Marshall tried to get the FBI on the case and he held on to that lady’s note. King quotes it, using her words to end Devil on a humane (if unresolved) note.

No doubt Marshall was gratified to find one of McCall’s white constituents knew the Sheriff was a “disgrace to the law in this wonderful county.” A phrase that must have spoken to the Supreme Court Justice who took pride in having sons—a lawyer and a federal marshal—who’d become “men of the law” too. That very pride, though, bespeaks Marshall’s less than utopian angle on civilization. He may have thought law could “change the hearts of men” but he wasn’t corny about humanity. Late in life, he liked to tell a joke that hints at the gap between his sense of possibility and Martin Luther King’s Dream. Marshall used this tease to deflect respondents pressing him for his judgment on when/how he’d/we’d know African Americans had reached the Promised Land. It begins with an impeccably dressed black stockbroker catching a train in Connecticut that will take him to his Wall Street job in the city. He sees an open seat and sits down next to a white matron, who cries out: “There’s a nigger on the train.” Ready to share her shock of recognition, the black suit looks around and replies: “Where?!”

Please don't understand this too quickly. It may simply be one more example of Marshall's sly, impious side. He shouldn't be reduced to a class-bound voice of black one-per centers. Yet his hard goof evokes enduring, ugly tensions between American mainliners (and wannabes) and the marginalized—tensions that put a squeeze on dreamy ideals of human solidarity.

Not that I’m entirely sure what point Marshall meant to make with his joke. That's why I found myself talking it over last month with an Afro-American New Yorker who’s a fellow soccer dad. Marshall’s joke reminded my friend of his time in North Carolina in the late 70s. Old Jim Crow was in its death throes but de facto segregation between blacks and whites was still the rule. (The high school he went to had black and white homecoming queens etc.) My friend mused, though, there was one bias that seemed to cross the color line. Back then (in his experience) both white and black Carolinians tended to nurture prejudice against the state’s growing population of Mexican immigrants. Just as he was recalling how he’d (gently) called out his Southern friends on this score, his son came rushing off the field where he’d been playing World Cup with a crew of city kids. Pointing to a Mexican boy near the goal, he said (more in wonder than in anger?): “He just called me ‘nigger.’”

It’s hard to be an Afro-humanist in the city (or anywhere in this country). Let’s hope that soccer dad and his soulful Brothers and Sisters—in and out of the White House—keep on pushing. The future of America—indispensable nation (of nations)—depends on them.


1 Marshall’s testimony shouldn’t be taken as a P.C. excuse to dismiss Dead White Presidents or the New Deal. It seems apt, on that score, I came to Devil in the Grove—and Marshall’s tale—thanks to a blurb by Ira Katznelson. He’s the author of Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time which is a national resource for Americans keeping faith in that hopey-changey thing in the Age of Obama. Katznelson’s account of the New Deal gets fresh about racism’s role in our polity without giving an inch to cynicism. He affirms the New Deal saved more than the American economy. It upheld the viability of democratic governance when totalitarians were on the upswing everywhere.

Katznelson never shies away from describing how white supremacists bent the New Deal (and shaped the National Security State). Fear Itself is a deeper dive into history Katznelson treated before in his essential 2005 study, When Affirmative Action Was White, which told how the New Deal and Harry Truman's Fair Deal ended up widening the income/educational gap between white and black Americans. During one of the most heroic periods of Democracy in America, as liberals created and administered sweeping social programs that provided a heavy lift for the American middle class, black citizens got cheated again and again. Fear Itself will remind readers America’s pariah race/class deserves reparative justice not only for centuries of slavery or the betrayal of Reconstruction but also for wide-scale financial discrimination wrought by more recent government policies.

To repeat, though, Katznelson’s truth attacks on white supremacy aren’t informed by an impulse to flush the entire legacy of the New Deal. His honest look at the past strikes the right balance for our own time. As the G.O.P. hangs fire on immigration reform and Obamacare goes live, there’s no upside to growing contempt for the idea of activist government among Americans.

From August, 2013

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