Thursday, August 8, 2013

Florida's Very Dark History, Now in the Light

I was three quarters of the way through Gilbert King's horrifying retelling of the story of the Groveland Boys before I even knew that this book had won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction this past year. I knew one thing though, as difficult as it was to read this previously unknown (to me) history of my beloved state of Florida, I owed it to these four young men and their families to at least bear witness to their suffering and unjust treatment at the hands of the State of Florida. It's not like it's the first time my state supreme court has deeply disappointed me. Sometimes my faith in the innate goodness of man is sorely tested.
I already did know quite a bit about Thurgood Marshall. In fact, he was born here in my adopted state of Maryland and the Baltimore-Washington airport is named for him. This outstanding lawyer, first African American Supreme Court Justice, is the anti-Clarence Thomas, a man who saw injustice and fought it at every turn, even though his life was often on the line. What I didn't realize is that he came oh too close to being lynched right there in the woods of Lake County, Florida, where he was trying a case for four young men who were falsely accused of rape.
King's book about Thurgood Marshall and the four Groveland men is no easy read, let me be clear. My sister and I talked about it when she was about a quarter of the way in and she said she had to give up. She didn't have to tell me what part of the book sent her over the edge. I knew it when I got there.
 Did you know that Florida has the dubious distinction of holding more lynchings in the Jim Crow era than Mississippi and Alabama combined? Members of the Klan served proudly in state and local politics, in police departments, and on juries. But the real devil in the grove was Lake County's long-serving Sheriff, Willis McCall, a man who murdered prisoners in his custody in cold blood and was still elected to serve into the 1970's.
Gilbert King apparently had unfettered access to un-redacted FBI files relating to Hoover's investigation into the goings on in the Florida courts at the behest of Thurgood Marshall who was, at the time, head of the NAACP and a member of the legal defense team that traveled the country looking for court cases that would highlight the injustices still being visited upon blacks.
 The time frame is 1949 to 1954 yet here we are in 2013 and we all know what just happened in Sanford, Florida, only a few miles from where the Groveland men were tried and convicted to die in the electric chair even though there was not a shred of evidence against any of them and certainly no physical evidence of a rape.
King's methodical telling of this travesty of justice is fascinating in its detail and the histories of the judge, lawyers, and other players in this long drawn out case. Marshall and his fellow attorneys could not stay in any hotels in the area of the trial and were forced to find families brave enough to take them in, some of whom suffered greatly for their kindness. Fire bombings were common and lynchings, a given.
 But from the initial trial in Lake County, to the Florida Supreme Court, to the federal Supreme Court level, and then back to Marion County, Marshall spent years in his effort to keep one young man, Walter Irvin, who refused a plea deal to save his own life, from the electric chair. And all this while he was preparing to argue his most famous case, Brown v. Board of Education.
Florida history is not all sunshine and lollipops, seniors having great sex in Boca, Mickey Mouse, and a railroad. Our state was built on the backs of slaves and then, on the backs of supposedly free men who, of course, weren't free at all. In 2013 blacks have been replaced by Hispanics but the story is much the same. Big Sugar and the orange industry may be thriving but their workers are not. The injustices may not be as blatant as Mr. King's book outlines but often subtlety is even harder to fight. You owe it to yourself and to the ones who suffered to at least take a look at this devastating book.

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