Saturday, August 3, 2013

Devil in the Grove

Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America

by Gilbert King

Once upon a time, on a mild February evening in central Florida, a young woman and her estranged husband, in an attempt to reconcile, went for a drive while sharing a bottle of whiskey.  At some point the man turned the car into what appeared to be a dirt road, but the wheels lost traction and the car became hopelessly stuck.  Two men, recently discharged from the army after having served their country in World War II, were driving by and stopped to see if they could help.  The estranged husband offered the whiskey bottle to the good Samaritans and then ordered them to get to work and extricate the car.  The veterans did not appreciate being treated like slaves by the man they stopped to help, and a fight broke out leaving the husband out cold in the dirt.  The men gave the woman a ride in their car and dropped her off a few miles away.  In the wee hours of the next morning, another man picked the wife up and dropped her off in front of a roadside diner at a crossroads in Okahumpka, Florida.  The year was 1948.  The two war veterans were black; everyone else involved was white.

A short time later, the woman’s husband and another man stopped at the diner and the reunited couple then claimed that a group of four black men had raped her, despite having told the security man at the diner, that after beating up her husband, the men had not hurt her.  She was just a bit tired, she had said, from having walked a fair distance.  Why Norma and Willie Pagett concocted this story is part of the mystery of the Groveland Four, a criminal case that riveted the nation during the early days of the American Civil Rights movement.  Within hours of the incident, the two erstwhile good Samaritans and a third young man were arrested, tortured, and jailed for the alleged rape.  A fourth man, Ernest Thomas, was fleeing Lake County to avoid being murdered by gangsters when he was shot and killed by Willis McCall, the all-powerful Lake County sheriff.  Thomas became the forth man.

At that time in our nation’s history the lynching of black men was a common practice in central Florida.  The empty country with vast orange groves remained a stronghold for the Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist group which formed in reaction to the Reformation following the Civil War.  The Klan, made up of white men who feared racial integration, Communism, and illegal immigrants, considered itself a Christian fraternal organization not unlike the Elks, but with a more menacing agenda.  In reality the Klan was a terrorist organization which co-opted local law enforcement and governments.   Sheriff McCall, a closeted Klan member, found himself in the difficult position of having to protect the three young black men in his custody from a violent and outraged lynch mob.  However, the pleasure of beating confessions out of two of the men, with a little help from some of his good ol’ boys in law enforcement, more than made up for this hardship.  Only one suspect, Walter Irvin, refused to give in to the coercion.  He never confessed, even when offered a plea bargain: life in prison as opposed to the electric chair.

As word spread throughout the black community in America that an outrage had been committed against four innocent men, Florida’s white establishment – from the local police up to the governor – made a mockery of the rule of law in its zeal to protect the “flower of southern womanhood”.  A team of lawyers from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) headed up by one of the nation’s greatest legal minds traveled from New York City to Lake County in order to defend the three young men in court.  Thurgood Marshall already had a string of civil rights victories under his belt, having successfully argued Chambers vs Florida before the United States Supreme Court which overturned the murder convictions of four wrongly accused black men whose confessions had been coerced by police in Broward County.  

Marshall was a long-term thinker when it came to matters of law and therefore he chose his cases carefully.  His goal was to overturn Plessy vs Ferguson (1896), a Supreme Court ruling that upheld the doctrine of “separate but equal” public facilities as the basis for legalizing racial segregation.  In order to do that, Marshall strategically crafted his arguments in every case so that each judge’s ruling in some way advanced his cause or gave him an opportunity to chip away at the segregationist doctrine.  By the time President Lyndon Johnson appointed Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court, segregation had ended, in large part due to his efforts.

Devil in the Grove is a gripping history of not only the Groveland Four case but of Thurgood Marshall’s life and career.  There are passages which describe a Gestapo-like climate in Florida at a time when the United States was engaged in the “Cold War” against the spread of Communism.  The hypocrisy of the brutal treatment of black Americans by their white neighbors, so similar to the Nazi’s persecution of Jews, pleased Russian and Chinese Communist leaders tremendously, and the increasingly ugly situation became a national embarrassment.  President Harry S. Truman, directed the Federal Bureau of Investigation to review the facts of the case.  J. Edgar Hoover and Thurgood Marshall, despite their mutual antipathy, used each other to support their respective agendas:  ferreting out Communists and bringing justice to the Groveland Four.

What happened in Lake County, Florida, in 1948 and the eventual outcome of the trail andsubsequent appeals, is important to understand in light of the recent criminal trial in neighboring Seminole County, in which a self-appointed security guard followed and then shot to death an unarmed teenage boy whose only crime was “looking suspicious”.  Florida Statute 776.013 Home protection; use of deadly force; presumption of fear of death or great bodily harm, the so called “Stand Your Ground” law, states that “A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.”

Trayvon Martin was not engaged in an unlawful activity;he was followed, perhaps threatened by a man with a gun who didn’t like the way he looked;  he had a right to be walking to his father’s house and had no duty to retreat;  he stood his ground and fought the armed man who wouldn’t leave him alone; at some point, he overpowered his aggressor with physical strength and athleticism;  his assailant, in the midst of this brawl, managed to pull the trigger of his handgun.  Ten minutes later, Trayvon Martin died, and seventeen months after that, George Zimmerman walked out of the courthouse a free man.

While the Trayvon Martin and Groveland Four cases have little similarity, there are some haunting echoes from central Florida’s past which George Zimmerman’s murder trial amplified.   The entire community in the Groveland case tacitly conspired to deny four black men their right to live.  Both the Groveland and Martin cases attracted Federal attention to prevent a lynching in the first instance, and to arrest the shooter in the second.  The degree to which racism on the part of George Zimmerman led to Trayvon Martin’s death is a question which is impossible to answer.  Given Zimmerman’s history of calling 911, however, it is clear that he believed a black teenage boy wearing a hoodie had no legitimate business walking on a sidewalk in the community he was patrolling.  The bigger question this case presents is why the local police were so reluctant to arrest George Zimmerman for Trayvon Martin’s death.  Had they done so, it is likely that no one outside of Florida would ever have heard of Trayvon Martin.

In 1948, brutal treatment of black suspects was done behind closed doors and McCall congratulated himself for delivering three breathing bodies and two confessions to the state prison.  Under the veneer of upholding the laws of the land, the Florida State judicial system suffered from the same institutional racism as the Lake County police department.  The judge at the murder trial suppressed evidence which would have exonerated the Groveland boys, and used every trick he could conjure up to prevent that “uppity negro” lawyer from the NAACP from representing them.

In 2012, George Zimmerman claimed he shot Trayvon Martin in self defense and used the “Stand Your Ground” statute to justify his actions.  It is unlikely that he intended to kill anyone that evening; he probably believed that the gun would scare the “suspicious looking” boy out of the neighborhood.  Only Zimmerman knows what he did and said that provoked the physical altercation which resulted in Martin’s death: as the saying goes, two people can keep a secret if one of them is dead.  In the aftermath of his acquittal, many Americans believe the Federal government should prosecute Zimmerman for committing a hate crime and/or for denying Martin his civil rights. Both cases would be difficult to win unless Florida’s prosecution team did an inept job (which is possible given how unenthusiastic the state was about arresting Zimmerman in the first place) and overlooked or ignored evidence of racism on the part of Zimmerman.  At a minimum, the Justice Department should review every aspect of the case to be sure that the state of Florida did its job.

In the years between the Groveland and Zimmerman cases, life for black Americans has changed profoundly for the better, thanks in large part to the work of Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP.  Marshall’s unassailable arguments against segregation and abuses by police and criminal prosecutors continue to strengthen the Constitution for everyone’s benefit.  Racist feelings, unfortunately, persist to varying degrees depending on one’s family and community values.  

It was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt who famously said “we have nothing to fear but fear itself” and fear is what led George Zimmerman to carry a loaded handgun.  Fear is what made Trayvon Martin fight for his life.  Fear is what caused Zimmerman to pull the trigger.  Fear is driving the parents of black boys to protest the outcome of the trial.  Finally, fear is the reason why so many Americans feel the need to own guns.  Rather than talk to each other to resolve differences we buy guns and threaten to kill anyone who makes us feel afraid.  If George Zimmerman had had an ounce of courage, he would have left Trayvon Martin alone.  Conversely, if  the unarmed Trayvon Martin hadn’t stood his ground, he might still be alive.

Copyright 2013 Teresa Friedlander, all rights reserved

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