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Fla. Lawmakers Apologize to Families of “Groveland Four,” Black Men Falsely Accused of Rape in 1949

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Florida lawmakers have apologized for what happened to four young African-American men in Groveland, Florida, nearly 70 years ago in 1949. The men, known as the Groveland Four, were falsely accused of raping a 17-year-old white girl. Before going to trial, one of the four men, Ernest Thomas, was hunted down and murdered by a mob of 1,000 men led by the local sheriff, Willis McCall. He was killed in a hail of gunfire. The other three men were tortured in jail until two of them gave false confessions. Charles Greenlee was sentenced to life. Walter Irvin and Samuel Shepherd were condemned to death. Just recently, Florida lawmakers passed a resolution saying, “We’re truly sorry.” For more, we speak with Gilbert King, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from the studios of Tampa PBS, WEDU. Lawmakers here in Florida have taken an unusual step and apologized for what happened to four young African-American men in Groveland, Florida, nearly 70 years ago in 1949. The men, known as the Groveland Four, were falsely accused of raping a 17-year-old white girl. Before going to trial, one of the four men, Ernest Thomas, was hunted down and murdered by a mob of 1,000 men, led by the local sheriff, Willis McCall. He was killed in a hail of gunfire. The other three men were tortured in jail until two of them gave false confessions. Charles Greenlee was sentenced to life. Walter Irvin and Samuel Shepherd were condemned to death. When Irvin and Shepherd appealed their conviction, they were represented by Thurgood Marshall of the NAACP, who would later become the first African-American Supreme Court justice. Samuel Shepherd later died after being shot by a sheriff and his deputy. Walter Irvin was also shot, but survived. He eventually died in 1968, two years after being paroled. Charles Greenlee lived until 2012.

But the story of the Groveland Four has continued to haunt the state of Florida. Last month, Charles Greenlee’s daughter Carol thanked Florida lawmakers for apologizing to her family.

CAROL GREENLEE CRAWLEY: This is a glorious day. And still today, the tears are hard to hold back. But today, the tears are tears of joy. And I want to thank all of you for releasing my family from prison, for releasing my nieces, my son, my brothers from the dark cloud, the shame and the stigma that have been put upon them, and releasing me from 67 years—I was a child. I was a baby, that my father went to Groveland to find a job to support back in 1949. And today, I feel free.

AMY GOODMAN: Today we’re going to look at the Groveland Four story. I’m Amy Goodman. In New York, Nermeen Shaikh of Democracy Now! joins us. I’m in Tampa, Florida, and she is in New York. Hi, Nermeen.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Hi, Amy. We’re joined now by Gilbert King, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America. The book has been widely praised for keeping the story of the Groveland Four alive.

Gilbert King, welcome to Democracy Now! So, could you explain the case of the Groveland Four? And your reaction to the Florida state Legislature passing this resolution and issuing an apology?

GILBERT KING: Sure. Well, you know, the case started in the summer of 1949, very much similar to a To Kill a Mockingbird-type story, where you had a young 17-year-old farm girl make these accusations that she was abducted and raped by four African Americans. And as soon as that story became local knowledge, the Klan rolled into Groveland and started burning down the homes in the black sections. They arrested a couple of suspects very quickly, threw them in jail. And the Klan showed up at that jail, and there was going to be a lynching that night. But, fortunately, Sheriff McCall was wise enough to say, “There’s not going to be any lynching in my county. We’re going to give these boys a fair trial, and then we’re going to put them in the electric chair.” And that’s pretty much how he sold that to the Klan. So he did prevent the lynching. But shortly after that—and very shortly, within a month—you had, you know, a trial, a capital trial, where three men’s lives were on the line.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And tell us about Willis McCall, the local county sheriff.

GILBERT KING: Right. Well, Willis McCall was a notorious segregationist. He was—he had a brutal 28-year reign in Lake County. And I think the most disturbing thing about McCall was, he wasn’t just a bad apple or a tyrant, basically, politicians, from judges to prosecutors to the U.S. attorney to the governor of Florida itself, had his back. And so, he liked to brag that he was investigated 49 times on civil rights charges, and he beat every single one of them.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain, Gilbert King, what happened to the man who was killed, and the role of the sheriff in this one of the four of the Groveland Four?

GILBERT KING: Well, what happened was, when they first arrested the first three suspects, Ernest Thomas kind of knew what was happening. The houses were being burned down. He fled. He knew what was in store for him. And so he went up to northern Florida. And Sheriff McCall put together a posse of over a thousand men. And for the next several days, they hunted him through the swamps of the area outside Madison, Florida. Eventually, they found him. He sleeping by a tree, a cypress tree. And witnesses at the scene said that he was shot multiple times and that they were pulling slugs and bullets out of his body. And Willis McCall was on the scene with his deputy, James Yates. And he was basically never going to be brought in. The idea was not to capture him and bring him back for trial. It was pretty clear to the witnesses that they were to shoot first.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, can you tell us a little, Gilbert, about the material that you had access for, for this book, and also your attempt to interview Norma Padgett, the white woman who was 17 at the time, who claimed that the four had raped her?

GILBERT KING: Right. Well, interestingly enough, so I filed a Freedom of Information Act several years ago. And it’s very difficult to get this material, because they go into a long queue. It all has to be vetted and redacted. But I hit the little mark of 60 years. And once 60 years passes in one of these civil rights investigations, all the material becomes public domain. So, I was very lucky to get suddenly a box of FBI files that were non-redacted. So everybody was named in there, all the FBI informants in the Klan. You have statements from police, basically helping the FBI and fingering people that were involved in the beatings. So all the information was right there. I think the most disturbing part of it was that it just sat in those FBI files for 60 years. Nobody knew about it. Thurgood Marshall didn’t know about all these investigations. And there are some people alive, still alive.

I did try to interview Norma Padgett. She had not spoken with a journalist since 1949 or 1950. And she said a few things to the reporter that caused a bit of an outrage, because it didn’t quite match up with her testimony in trial. And so, after that, I believe she was warned to not speak to any more journalists, which she hasn’t done in, you know, over 60 years. But I tried. I went—I went down and showed up outside her door. And the message I received was to let sleeping dogs lie. She does not want to reinvestigate it.

AMY GOODMAN: Gilbert, I want to turn to Bobby DuBose, the Florida state representative from Fort Lauderdale, who sponsored the resolution. He spoke at a news conference here in Florida announcing it.

REP. BOBBY DUBOSE: With this injustice, we, the state of Florida, we were wrong. The injustice these men and their families encountered are hard to really just truly put into words. The memories can’t be erased. The pain they have endured can’t be fixed. But today we have an opportunity to provide closure to these families in the form of an apology.

AMY GOODMAN: And this is Republican representative, here in Florida, Chris Sprowls, chair of Florida’s House Judiciary Committee, issuing a formal apology to the families.

REP. CHRIS SPROWLS: I got the opportunity several weeks ago to speak to Carol Greenlee, who’s here with us today. And she talked to me about how, when she was a little girl, you know, 12 years old when her dad got out of prison, it wasn’t until she was a grown woman, nearly 40, when she actually asked her dad about what happened. And I think when we read a book like The Devil in the Grove or we read about the stories of these great moral failings, like this case, sometimes we forget that there were families and communities that also suffered just terrible and grave injustices, like the families that are behind us today. And for that, as a state, we’re just truly sorry for what took place.

AMY GOODMAN: Is there, Gilbert King, an official pardon that will be offered to the men? Would Governor Scott go along with it? And how have the families responded to this, so many decades later?

GILBERT KING: Well, I think it is a little more complicated. It’s not quite like the Scottsboro Boys, where you had, you know, nine defendants found guilty, and then, ultimately, the state of Alabama could go through and pardon them one by one. It took 80 years, but the last Scottsboro Boy was pardoned, I think, a couple years ago. In this case, it’s a little more complicated, because the sheriff killed two of the men. So, in fact, Samuel Shepherd, he was actually—his—when the first trial was thrown out, the Supreme Court overruled it, said it was one of the great menaces to American justice. So, technically, Sam Shepherd was never convicted. So he can’t get a pardon. So the apology does mean something to the Shepherds, and it does mean something to the family of Ernest Thomas, who never stood trial. So he doesn’t have a conviction, and he can’t be pardoned, while for the Irvins and for the Greenlees, they do have convictions. And so, for half of the Groveland Boys, the pardon means everything. So, the apology, while great and everybody acknowledges that it’s an important step on the state of Florida, the jury is not quite done, because that pardon is going to go before the governor and the pardon board, and he’s going to be asked to consider that.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I want to turn to Walter Lee Irvin’s sister, Henrietta Irvin. Here she explains Walter’s account of what happened the night he and Sam Shepherd were shot by Sheriff Willis McCall and a deputy.

HENRIETTA IRVIN: When he opened the door for Sam, as Sam turned to get out of the car, Walter, he said, he shot him right in his forehead. Just like that. He said he shot him so fast, and he felt his weight moving, until he knew that Sam was dead, he said. But by that time, he had done shot him also. And he said he remembered hearing him say, “Come on back. I have killed the son of a bitches.” He said, well, when Mr. Yates got back and he was shining his light on him, he kicked Sam, and he shined the light on him and said, “But this—is not dead.”

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So that’s Walter Lee Irvin’s sister, Henrietta Irvin. So, Gilbert, can—your response to what she said?

GILBERT KING: Well, I think that this was at a seminal moment in this entire story. Basically, this is the equivalent of cellphone camera footage of a killing. So, Sam Shepherd and Walter Irvin are handcuffed together. McCall comes around the car and shoots Sam Shepherd three times. He dies instantly. Walter Irvin is shot twice. He can’t run, because he’s handcuffed to his best friend, so he lays on the ground and pretends to be dead. But he’s still living, and he hears the sheriff say, “Get back. I got the son of a bitches. We got to make it look like an escape.” And he starts tearing at his clothes, rumpling his hat. The deputy sheriff comes back to the scene, shines a flashlight down on Walter Irvin and says, “This one ain’t dead yet,” pulls a gun and fires a third shot straight through his neck. Miraculously, Irvin is still alive.

And so, when the FBI hears this story, which differs from Sheriff McCall’s version, they have an idea where that bullet might be. So they go back to the crime scene. They find the bloodstain where Walter Irvin was laying, take out a little shovel. And 10 inches below that bloodstain, they find a .38-caliber bullet, which matches the gun of Sheriff Willis McCall. So, here you have pure proof that the sheriff and the deputy have attempted murder and murder on their hands. This is all investigated by the FBI. The FBI is convinced that this happened. And yet it was quashed. And so, that, I think, is one of the great tragedies. Thurgood Marshall never found out about this information. It just sat in an FBI file for 60 years.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you, Gilbert King, about Thurgood Marshall, about the man that you wrote about extensively, and his role in this case.

GILBERT KING: Well, this is a really interesting thing, because this Groveland case is beginning at the same time that Brown v. Board is beginning. And so, Marshall is being talked to by his colleagues at the LDF, saying, “Thurgood, you’re indispensable to the civil rights movement. We cannot afford to lose you. You can’t go down to Florida and take this highly dangerous case, where you’re having to move around from house to house so that the Klan doesn’t get you.” And they said, “We can’t afford to lose you. We have too many landmark cases in the pipeline.” And Marshall was really adamant about this, which I found really interesting. He just said, “Look, these cases are just important. These cases save lives.”

And so, in a way, he was really in the forefront of Black Lives Matter. He knew that he was the last step, the last great hope, that there were men down there who were falsely accused of these crimes, facing the death penalty. And Marshall said it moved him, because he would stand in the lobby with the mothers of these boys, and they would be begging him to save their boy, because they knew they were innocent. And that made a big impact on Marshall. And, you know, throughout all the voting rights cases, the housing cases, the school cases, you see Marshall going down and taking these extraordinarily dangerous cases, because they mattered to him.

AMY GOODMAN: So, this was before Brown v. Board of Education. Talk about Thurgood Marshall’s trajectory, from being involved in cases like these, when some, even in his inner circle, were saying, as you said, “You should be involved with broader issues, not take on these criminal cases”—his trajectory from being a defense lawyer, in this case, to Supreme Court justice.

GILBERT KING: Right. Well, you know, what’s really interesting is, Thurgood Marshall was—he really saw himself as a civil rights lawyer. And so, he felt like he was involved in a broad thing, from housing to voting, but he also saw that these criminal cases were just extremely important to communities. And one of the things that I was really inspired by, Marshall would go down and take these cases in the South, and he knew he was going to lose. They had 12 white jurors, a biased judge, a racist prosecutor. That was what he was up against. But hundreds of African Americans would come from miles around and sit in those Jim Crow balconies. And Marshall said it was just as important to show them an African American sitting in court arguing with a judge and prosecutor over the law. Most of the—most of the blacks who showed up, they had never seen a black person in court who wasn’t a defendant. And so, Marshall felt it was just as important to really demonstrate what was possible, this hope that was possible. And he became, really, the living proof of that. He went on to become the first African-American Supreme Court justice. So his trajectory really came from his time when he was known as “Mr. Civil Rights,” in the ’40s, ’50s and early ’60s, until he became a Supreme Court justice.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Gilbert King, what do you think the significance is? I mean, all four are now dead. The Groveland Four are dead. What’s the significance of Florida now issuing an apology?

GILBERT KING: Well, I think what’s really significant is that, for the longest time, stories like this lingered from the point of view of the sheriff. So, if you look at what—the version that stuck in Florida was that these were the rapists, they were convicted in court, and then they attacked the sheriff and tried to escape that night. And so, that was the version that lingered. And so the families have lived under the stigma that you heard Carol Greenlee speak about, that their name—they were associated with a rapist. And so, it means the world to them to just have some official apology to clear their names.

And I think it’s just a part of—we have not really, as a country, really addressed these kind of issues. For the longest time, if you go into a community in the South especially, stories like this are very common, but they didn’t become Supreme Court cases. They didn’t have Thurgood Marshall. There was no appeals, and these men were just sent to their deaths. And so, when families today react to police brutality or—really, it’s a legacy of decades of this kind of injustice that really angers people, because they know that these stories were not heard and that they were never acknowledged.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Gilbert King, if you could talk about this case in the context of criminal justice and what is happening with African Americans today? I mean, now in the news, in Baton Rouge, the U.S. Justice Department says it’s closed its investigation into the killing of Alton Sterling by police officers, one police officer shooting him in the stomach, on top of him, at point-blank range. Not clear what will happen next, the state expected to investigate this, the state of Louisiana. But Jeff Sessions’ Justice Department will not bring charges. How does this fit into this picture?

GILBERT KING: Well, you know, this is a difficult question, because I think there’s a lot of people out there that look at, you know, Jeff Sessions’ appointment and think that perhaps that civil rights and this kind of investigation and this kind of progress that has been made might be taking a step backwards. And if there’s all these safeguards put in for prosecutors to sort of feel that they have a little bit more of a sympathetic Justice Department, I think it’s not a very good thing. I honestly believe that the families of not only the Groveland Boys, but families who have been through this, are deeply suspicious of prosecutors and police departments who enable this kind of thing to be quashed. Nowadays, it’s a little more obvious because you do see cellphone footage of some of these things, and it defies what you’re looking at. But back in the day, in the '40s and ’50s, you really had the word of a policeman and a black corpse. And it was a very simple thing to just go before a coroner's jury or go before a grand jury, because these communities were not willing to indict. And I think that, you know, you’re starting to see some progress about this. And I think people are—you know, with social media and with media coverage, these stories can get out there, and police departments have to react to it, and prosecutors are going to need to react to it, too.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Gilbert King, we want to thank you so much for being with us.

GILBERT KING: My pleasure.

AMY GOODMAN: He is the author of Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America. The book was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2013.

When we come back, Marissa Alexander joins us from Jacksonville. And then we’ll speak with a college graduate here in Tampa, a Syrian refugee. This is Democracy Now! Stay with us.

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