In July 1949, four young black men were accused of raping a white woman in Groveland, Florida. One was shot, while the others were brought into custody, where they were beaten. Though evidence pointed to their innocence, they were found guilty. On their way to a retrial, another one of the men was shot and killed. The remaining two languished behind bars for life. Only in 2017 did the Florida House of Representatives apologize for the injustice done to the four men who played no role in what turned out to be a fabricated crime.
The plight of the Groveland Four is a shocking example of virulent American racism and the subject matter of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning book Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America. The book’s author, Gilbert King, spoke at Fordham Law on Feb. 26 at the Center on Race, Law & Justice’s Reading Race Book Club.
Before the release of his groundbreaking work, King noted that virtually no one had written about this important case. The silence, according to King, stems in part from Florida’s status as being “south of the South” and thus ignored as a locus of race-based violence—despite its having had the highest per capita rate of lynching in the nation.
Yet all over the nation, such violence was often underestimated or overlooked. In a slideshow, King showed a photograph of two water fountains: one for whites and one for blacks. Common in elementary school textbooks, the photograph fails to display the truth of the South during the Jim Crow era.
“When you look at a picture like this, it makes it look like Jim Crow was rude or inconvenient for African Americans,” said King, who said the image whitewashes history. “Those were not the two words to describe what I was finding in Jim Crow. The two words I would use to describe it were brutality and terrorism.”
Those twin evils destroyed the lives of the four Groveland Boys—Earnest Thomas, Charles Greenlee, Samuel Shepherd, and Walter Irvin—and tainted their families with shameful lies for years to come.
From the beginning, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund knew the truth, so LDF attorneys Thurgood Marshall and Fordham Law alumnus Franklin Williams ’45 decided to defend the ill-fated young men. Marshall and Williams knew, however, that prospects were grim.
“There were just so many obstacles that these young lawyers had to go up against,” said King, who observed that all hope relied on the lawyers’ finding appealable issues, since the Supreme Court was the only level playing field. Without lawyers, a client on trial for a crime punishable by death would likely receive that fateful sentence. In many cases, clerks crafting appeal reports would make the language vague in order to secure the grim fate.
“It’s basically just fast-pacing somebody to the electric chair,” said King.
The Groveland case found Marshall and Williams as the first black people in the court who were not defendants. Despite the odds, they managed to win appeal and have the guilty verdict overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. But this was their only success. Facing another retrial, Sheriff Willis McCall drove Shepherd and Irvin to a quiet place, where he shot them both. Shepherd died; Irvin lived only by playing dead.
According to King, the FBI proceeded to write a report in which they detailed the finding of a third bullet—a description that confirmed Irvin’s account and proved McCall’s guilt. Nonetheless, racism prevailed. King said that the most shocking data he encountered during his research was the U.S. attorney general’s dismissal of the report. The dismissal resulted in another guilty verdict for Irvin, though he received life in prison instead of death.
King observed how a system of racism, while most flagrantly harming the four defendants and their families, affects all who come in contact with it. He noted how poor whites—such as a man who attempted to testify in favor of the Groveland Boys, and members of the jury—were threatened into the silencing of truth and the endorsement of lies. He also noted how Nora Padgett, the white woman who accused the four, was manipulated by an abusive husband who was the plot’s puppet master.
“White supremacy is not good for everybody,” said King. “The system preys on the weak and powerless.”
In April 2017, the Florida House of Representatives came to a bipartisan agreement and publically apologized to the four young men and their families, allowing the world to know the truth.
The truth, said King, was what the families wanted.
“They just said they wanted it known,” said King. “They wanted their name cleared.”
Photos by Dana Maxson.