Over the past couple of years, two incidents in Florida have led many of us to reexamine the problem of racial violence in America. These incidents were the shootings of Trayvon Martin and, more recently, of Justin Davis. Of the two cases, the facts of the second seemed more egregious. Davis was sitting in a car with his friends at a gas station, when Michael Dunn, a 45-year old white software designer, apparently alarmed by how loud the young men were playing their music, fired his shotgun repeatedly into their SUV, killing Davis. Both stories gripped the nation, sparking protests everywhere. Both precipitated an avalanche of commentary about how far we’ve come, and how far we have yet to go, on the question of racism.
What is too easy to forget is that, in the view of history, these incidents aren’t a deviation; they’re a return to the norm. Violence tinged with racism is part of our inheritance as Americans. It is part of who we are.
Everyone has their own image of the Jim Crow South. Devil in the Grove, a new (2012) book by Gilbert King, chronicles the “Groveland Boys”—four young black men who were accused of raping a white girl in 1949 in the town of Groveland, Florida—and brings the full destructive force of “Southern justice” crashing down on your head.
The story of the Groveland Boys begins with a sequence of events that should be familiar to anyone who has read To Kill a Mockingbird. A white couple’s car breaks down late one night, and while trying to fix the car they encounter four black men, who stop to help them. What happens next is murky, but the next day Norma Padgett has accused the black men of rape. The response is explosive. The men are arrested and thrown in jail. A lynch mob quickly forms, attempting to break the men out of jail and lynch them. Through the efforts of a crooked sheriff, the mob is turned away. But that is only the beginning. As the saga of the Groveland Boys develops in King’s comprehensive, riveting work, the extent to which bedrock principles such as Due Process and the right to a fair trial are trampled underfoot by the vengeful racism of Lake County. Despite the eventual involvement of Thurgood Marshall’s NAACP Legal Defense Fund—which features prominently in King’s tale—it is a horrible, tragic tale.
Walker Percy once wrote that it was the smile on the face of a racist character—that most sympathetic, human aspect—that was the most unsettling thing about him. Can you imagine a lynch mob? No, really, can you imagine it? Does it look like this? Say you’re a poor white farmer, living in central Florida. Your days consist of working in the orange fields for a citrus magnate, earning a few cents an hour as you labor in the hot sun. You’ve done your best to raise decent children; you go to church on Sundays when you’re not too tired. You’re married; you love your wife; and you’re an Army veteran–you served in France during WWII. Decades ago, your community was ripped apart by the Civil War. The scars still rankle: the Northerners destroyed your way of life–no, you correct yourself, your people’s way of life. White people, that is. Over the last few years a few black families have moved into town. They’ve settled in a neighborhood on the west side. Your bosses have been hiring them lately; you’ve heard they work like crazy, and they’re out to steal your job. Occasionally you’ll see a car full of black folks, cruising around town. They’re laughing, drinking, acting like they belong here, in your town. The gall!
Then word gets out that one of your neighbor’s daughters has been raped. Raped by four black men. It’s a small town; you’ve known the girl your whole life. She’s not the most moral of young ladies, you admit, but she’ll always be a flower of southern womanhood. That’s her birthright. Nobody can take that away from her. Nobody but those damn n—–s. Your blood starts to boil. You can’t stay inside, so you head out, looking to do something, anything. The whole community, you discover, is gathering down on Main Street. It’s not just you–your neighbors feel the same way. There’s talk of making things right. Someone says the rapists are being held in the county jail, just down the street . . . .
Is this how people become capable of evil? A similar scene played out in 1949 Groveland, Florida as told by King:
Sheriff Willis McCall was on his way back from an Elks Club convention in Cleveland, Ohio, with a deputy, a prisoner, and some friends when he stopped his sturdy Oldsmobile 88 in Citra, a small Florida town home to the pineapple orange, about an hour and a half north of Groveland . . . . McCall had been away from Florida for only a few days, but he couldn’t resist the urge to check in on his domain. He reached down and powered on the police radio. . . .
As he drove south into citrus country, the radio cackled beneath the lull of the heavy engine until McCall thought he could make out the voice of his deputy, James Yates, in distress. Something about a shooting in Lake County. McCall stiffened behind the wheel, then reached for the radio and managed to get Reuben Hatcher, the county jailer, on the other end.
“What’s the trouble?” McCall asked after identifying himself.
Hatcher was breathing hard and trying to compose himself. . . . “there’s a lot of trouble fixin’ to start” . . . “A white housewife . . . raped by four negroes . . . .”
With his passengers sitting in stunned silence, Willis McCall’s ears pricked up. Black suspects were in custody, he was told, but a mob was forming in Groveland and there was a “pretty high feeling” around the county. McCall stared straight down the highway, one hand gripped tight on the wheel as he pressed his foot down on the accelerator. He knew Lake County better than anyone and he could sense the distress on the other end of the radio. Night was coming; he needed to get back fast. The sheriff had one more thought, which he was able to relay to the jailer.
“Call Yates and tell him to get the Negroes out right away,” he said. “Hide them in the woods.”
McCall managed to stave off a lynching on that tense night in 1949, single-handedly turning aside 125 armed white men who had come to the jail looking for black blood. (“Willis,” said a voice from the crowd, “we want them niggers.”) Like Atticus Finch on the jailhouse steps, McCall, it seemed, had stood for goodness in an evil time.
McCall, however, was far from a saint—he certainly was no Atticus Finch. During his 28-year tenure as sheriff of Lake County, McCall was repeatedly under investigation for civil rights violations, shady associations with gangsters, and murder. In the Groveland affair—I won’t spoil what happens—suffice it to say that after a promising beginning, McCall is quickly revealed. The details of his and his cronies’ involvement are chilling. Not even Thurgood Marshall, a legal force for good in a dark time, would be enough, in the end, to counteract his nefarious deeds.
Devil in the Grove is another work in the pantheon of Civil Rights history that makes the inescapable point that if you were a black man living in central Florida in the 1940s and you were accused of raping of a white girl, then no matter how incredulous, how fabricated, how biased the evidence was against you, you were almost certainly going to be either lynched in a horribly violent fashion, with the murderers most likely escaping scot free; executed after a sham trial tried by an openly racist prosecutor in front of an abjectly biased judge; or–if you were very lucky–sentenced to life imprisonment. Devil in the Grove is, in a way, an illustration of each of those three options. It is a frightening story, and it does not have a happy ending.
That the killings of Trayvon Martin and Justin Davis occurred in Florida is perhaps not a matter of historical coincidence. During the period from the Civil War’s end up until the end of Jim Crow, there were 266 lynchings in Florida. Every four months, a black Floridian was murdered by mob violence. Things are better now. But not all the way better, as we, in our weaker moments, like to believe. Our history never leaves us. It is best to learn from it. We can start by reading books like Devil in the Grove.