Just Posted: “White Privilege” by publisher Dave Lawrence in Miami Stories

Groveland

As word of the alleged crimes spread through the surrounding area, carloads of white vigilantes rushed to Groveland. The gathering mob was disappointed to find three of the defendants already in jail. The excited throng joined the unsuccessful search for Ernest Thomas, the fourth man. At nearby Tavares, they met up with Sheriff McCall, who told them that the three defendants had been transferred to the state penitentiary. The disbelieving vigilantes demanded that the blacks be turned over to them. Although Sheriff McCall actually was hiding the prisoners at his own home, the mob was not convinced until Willie Padgett and Norma’s father inspected the jail. McCall promised that justice would be served. Not fully satisfied, the angry mob returned to Groveland and started shooting into black homes. Fearing the worst, black families left their homes, with help from several white residents. Among the whites of Groveland who did the right thing was L. Day Edge who, with a group of his business associates and friends, provided trucks to take blacks to safety.[1]Dunn, A History of Florida Through Black Eyes, p.3.

In November 1951, while transferring Irvin and Shepherd from Raiford State Prison in north Florida for a pre trial hearing in Lake County, a widely disputed set of events unfolded. Sheriff McCall and a white deputy, James L. Yates, were transporting the defendants late at night, using back roads in order to avoid detection. The prisoners were in McCall’s car. Yates was in a second vehicle about two miles ahead of McCall, supposedly scouting for trouble. According to later accounts given by the two officers, McCall noticed that his front tire was low on air. About this time, Irvin asked to go to relieve himself. McCall said he pulled to the side of the road to let Irvin relieve himself and to check the tires. McCall related this version of the events: “As they got out, Sheppard (sic) hit me with a flashlight that was laying on the seat. He told Irvin to get my gun – the lick had knocked me dowr (sic) on one knee against the car. That is when I grabbed my gun, a thirty-eight S&W special. I started firing and did not stop until I heard the plunger hitting empty shells.[2]Dunn, A History of Florida Through Black Eyes, p.7.

Irvin survived the shooting and later told a different version of the happenings. In his account, the sheriff pulled his car to the side of the road, ordered the men out and shot them without provocation. He said Yates, having rushed to the scene, discovered that he was still alive, and shot him in the throat. We will never know exactly what happened that night, but McCall’s accusation that Irvin and Shepherd jumped him may have been true. Irvin’s account of the events left questions unanswered and contradicted physical evidence. For example, there was physical evidence that the men tussled with McCall since fibers from McCall’s coat were meshed with fibers from the men’s garments, and McCall’s coat fibers were meshed with the clothing the men were wearing. Irvin said that McCall ordered them out of the car and shot them, but it appeared that the shots were fired from very close range, contradicting Irvin’s account that they were several feet away when McCall shot them.

There is also the question of whether Yates actually shot Irvin. According to witnesses at the scene who had rushed there at McCall’s call, Yates arrived after many of them had arrived. Yates would have had to shoot Irvin in front of half a dozen or more witnesses, many of whom were town notables. In addition, ballistic reports show that all of the bullets that struck Irvin came from McCall’s gun.[3]Dunn, A History of Florida Through Black Eyes, p.8.

McCall was notoriously racist but I believe his claim that the men jumped him. Why would they not have done so given the opportunity. And McCall gave them that opportunity. He had the men handcuffed and not shackled. He was driving alone with them which was also a mistake. Forensic evidence would later show that fibers from Irvin and Shepherd’s clothing were meshed with McCall’s suggesting the men did struggle with the sheriff insted of being merely pulled out of the car and shot as Irvin later claimed. The two men were doomed. A new trial meant nothing. They would be back on Death Row in a matter of days. If I had been one of them I would have jumped McCall too. [4]Dunn, A History of Florida Through Black Eyes, p.2.

This time, Irvin would be defended by Thurgood Marshall himself. But Attorney Williams, who had already been sent down by the NAACP, did not acquiesce easily, feeling Marshall was muscling in on the case now that it had attained international interest. According to Jack Greenberg, another of the NAACP attorneys assigned to the case, “There was a lot of yelling and screaming and carrying on, that sort of thing. . . He [Williams] and Thurgood clashed constantly. . . . But Marshall was also drawn to the spotlight that was now focused on Groveland, and he was not going to play second fiddle to his junior.”

Under threat of further appeals, Marshall finally forced Judge Futch to allow him back into the case. When he walked into the small southern courtroom with its whirring overhead fans and segregated seating, Marshall became the first black lawyer to argue a case in Marion County, Florida.

During the trial Judge Futch showed his disdain for Marshall and the defense by taking out a knife and whittling whenever they stood to speak. “When I went down for the Irvin trial,” Marshall recalled in a quiet, conspiratorial voice, “a white man met me in the hallway, and it was real tense. And he showed me his credentials from the governor’s staff. He said, ‘They’re trying to get you.’ And I said, ‘Who? Sheriff Willis McCall?’ And he said, ‘No, the deputy is going to get you.’

I said, ‘Well, thank you, I appreciate that.'” The threats caused Marshall to walk everywhere, even to the toilet, with two bodyguards. He began shifting houses from night to night and even eating at different homes so no one could predict his movements.

Marshall had to also cope with the “good-ol’-boy” justice system. The governor had phoned the judge, who agreed to give Irvin a life sentence if Irvin pleaded guilty. The judge sent word to Marshall to have his client accept the deal immediately or go to trial and take his chances with the death penalty.

In his client’s jail cell, Marshall described the judge’s offer. Irvin asked what he would have to do to accept the plea bargain. “Just stand up there and when they say are you guilty or not guilty, you say: I’m guilty,” Marshall explained. Irvin, a dark-skinned man with a long face and sad eyes, looked dead into Marshall’s eyes.

He asked if admitting guilt meant he had raped the woman. Yes, replied Marshall. Irvin spat on the floor in disgust. “That I raped that whore? I didn’t and I’m not going to say so.” Marshall said in that moment he became convinced that while Irvin may have had sex with the woman, he had not raped her. “I knew damn well that man was innocent.”[5]Dunn, The Beast in Florida, p.11.

With Williams marginalized, Marshall personally led the NAACP legal team to defend Irvin at the second trial. Right from the start, they faced trouble. Marshall faced a hostile court. Judge Truman Futch removed Marshall and Greenberg from the case because, in the judge’s opinion, Marshall and the NAACP were agitators who were stirring up trouble in the community. Later in Miami, Marshall expressed his determination to represent his Groveland client. Speaking to an excited group at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in the black community of Overtown, he declared, “They can keep me from the courts of Florida but there is no man alive or to be born who can prevent me from arguing the Groveland case before the U.S. Supreme Court.”

Marshall threatened to appeal his dismissal from the case; this forced the judge to allow him back on the case. He became the first black lawyer to argue a case in Marion County; however, the judge did not refrain from showing his disapproval of Marshall. Whenever the defense rose to speak, the judge took out a knife and whittled. Marshall later recalled being uncomfortable in Marion County. He reported that a white man, with credentials from the Governor’s staff, told him in the courthouse hallway that he was being targeted by a deputy who worked for Sherriff Willis McCall. The threats caused Marshall to take extraordinary steps to protect himself, including going everywhere, even to the toilet, escorted be two bodyguards. He also tried to protect himself by staying in different houses each night so that it would be more difficult to predict his whereabouts.[6]Dunn, A History of Florida Through Black Eyes, p.10-12.

The Governor attempted to resolve the case by asking the judge to give Irvin a life sentence if he pleaded guilty. If the offer was refused, Marshall would have to defend his client with a threat of the death penalty. When the offer was presented to Irvin, he asked Marshall what he would have to do in order to accept the plea bargain. Marshall replied, “Just stand up there and when they say are you guilty or not guilty, you say: I’m guilty.’” Irvin adamantly refused, spitting on the floor and asking, “That I raped that whore? I didn’t and I’m not going to say so.” Marshall was convinced that his client was innocent. It was conceivable to him that Irvin had engaged in sex with the woman but he did not believe he raped her. “I knew damn well that man was innocent,’’ said Marshall.

In his defense of Irvin, Marshall called a soldier who had found Norma Padgett wandering on a highway the morning after the alleged crime. He testified that the woman never told him she had been raped, only that she had been kidnapped. The man testified that the woman told him it was too dark to identify the men who kidnapped her. Importantly, the defense was able to point out that there was no medical evidence verifying that a rape had occurred. Marshall attacked the prosecution’s effort to place Irvin at the scene by submitting impressions of footprints in the mud that allegedly came from Irvin’s shoes. In order to debunk this assertion, Marshall had a criminologist testify that Irvin was not wearing the shoes when the prints were made. The expert witness asserted that the prints had been made by empty shoes. The obvious inference was that someone had returned to the scene and imprinted the foot prints, using empty shoes.

The good ol’ boy system dogged Marshall throughout the trial. For example, some of the jurors who were Shriners wore their pins in court, suggesting at least some type of bond between the men that could be prejudicial to the defendant. There was also the problem of possible social connections between jurors who were Masons, an ultra-secret organization. During a discussion in the judge’s chamber, Marshall asked if the judge had seen the prosecutor motion to the jury three times, using a secret Masonic distress signal. “’Yeah, as a matter of fact, it was four,’ Futch told Marshall with a laugh.” When Marshall expressed his attempt to file an objection, the judge told him it would be overruled. “’There’s nothing racial about that. . . . He does it all the time, whether you’re white, black, or green. He gives the distress signal all the time,’” said the judge. Predictably, the verdict came in quickly. The jury was out only 90 minutes. Marshall was told later by a court observer that the verdict would have come in even sooner but the men wanted to smoke their cigars.[7]Dunn, A History of Florida Through Black Eyes, p.13.

Governor Leroy Collins

Irvin’s lawyers moved for a third trial. The NAACP started a campaign to save Irvin’s life and successfully won a hearing two days before his execution was to take place. In November 1954, about six months to the day after the landmark Brown decision on school desegregation, Governor Leroy Collins reexamined the case and commuted Walter Irvin’s death sentence to life imprisonment, informing the State Pardon Board that Irvin’s guilt had not been established conclusively. The governor’s action may seem fair at first glance, but one is left to wonder why Irvin was not pardoned outright if the governor believed that his guilt had not been established conclusively. Collins’s decision in the Irvin case supports the view that Collins, at least at that time, was more of a political realist than a moderate with sympathies for the plight of Florida blacks.

According to historian Juan Williams, “The governor’s decision was pure politics.” In a compromise decision that left a likely innocent man in prison, the governor bowed to the political realities of the day. In a clear nod to conservatives, Collins denounced the NAACP for its handling of the case.

Governor Collins’s decision did not make him an admired figure in Lake County. “In February 1956, Collins and his wife took part in a parade in Eustis when Norma Padgett, escorted by two of McCall’s deputies, approached his car and yelled at the governor, “’You’re the one who let out the nigger that raped me. Would you have done that if it had been your wife?’” The encounter reportedly rattled Collins and bothered him for years after.

Greenlee was paroled in 1962 and left the state permanently settling in Tennessee. Irvin was released in 1968 and moved to Miami. His freedom was made possible fourteen years after Collins had spared him from execution. Governor Claude Kirk, a conservative Republican, released him from prison. Irvin returned for a visit to Groveland in 1970, but died there during his visit. According to Groveland City Councilman John Griffin, a black man, “Before she died, Norma Padgett came to Irvin’s relatives and apologized for what had happened.[8]Dunn, A History of Florida Through Black Eyes, p.15.

Sheriff Willis V. McCall

McCall was in deep trouble again in 1973, this time for allegedly killing a black prisoner from Miami. The man, Tommy Vickers, was returned to Lake County from Miami to respond to a traffic violation. While in police custody, Vickers died from a blow to the abdomen, allegedly struck by McCall. Vickers died from peritonitis, possibly caused by the sheriff’s blow to his body. But according to McCall, Vickers was mentally disturbed, and several officers had been required to restrain him before he was delivered to Lake County. Once ensconced in McCall’s jail, Vickers allegedly created a disturbance over several days. When he threw his food against the wall one morning, McCall sent two black trustees into the cell to clean up the mess.

McCall said the trustees were attacked by Vickers once they entered his cell. According to McCall, “Vickers was choking one of the trustees. I kicked his arm between the wrist and elbow and, as I knocked the strangle hold loose, my foot went down on his arm. I am sure it bruised his arm. I did not kick him in the abdomen as was later claimed.” McCall said, after he delivered the blow, Vickers got up on his hands and knees and charged, making a roaring noise. McCall said, “I popped him twice with my open hand on the nape of the neck. He looked up at me and shook his head. . . . At this point, he went over and sat down as calm as can be. This is when I said, ‘That damn Nigger ain’t as crazy as he would have you believe.’” McCall was charged with murder in the Vickers case. Few blacks in Lake County were surprised by the Not Guilty verdict.[9]Dunn, A History of Florida Through Black Eyes, p.16.

McCall may seem to have been an enigma–a racist who hid black prisoners from a white mob and who fired teargas into a riotous crowd of whites that included some of his own friends in single-handed defense of a tiny black community. But Willis V. McCall fired upon the rioting whites because he believed above all else in law and order. The mob was treading on his turf and McCall would have none of it, friends or not.

Also important in his defense of the blacks was the fact that McCall knew these people. They were in a sense “his Negroes.” He knew most by their names and he knew that none of them had anything to do with the alleged attack on Norma Padgett. Another reason for McCall’s actions that night was the fact that whites in power needed blacks as laborers and servants. It was not in the interest of the white-power elite to have blacks run out of the county, and in rural Florida it was usually the sheriff’s job to keep the black workforce in check and on their jobs.

Long after leaving office, McCall bristled at being called a racist who abused blacks. But of course, the man was a racist and in that respect he was not altogether different from most other racists. Southern racists did not necessarily hate blacks; they simply saw them as being beneath themselves. As long as a black person accepted and behaved in accord with that view, there was peace between the races.

McCall once explained his views on race by offering an analogy: “If I had a thoroughbred race horse out there in my stable and an old mule too, do you think I would mistreat the mule just because he is a mule?” McCall’s affections for the mule may well have been genuine, but then a mule is a mule and not a thoroughbred horse.

The inherent racism in his analogy is apparent; blacks are not equal to whites although it is possible for whites to actually care about blacks. Many southern whites were reared by black women who they saw more often than they did their own mothers. Some, if not many, truly did love their nannies and wept at their gravesides as fervidly as did members of the woman’s family. But tears for “old Mammy” did not necessarily connote acceptance of black equality.

McCall was a racist with a badge who had an unhealthy tendency to use violence for his own purposes one of which was to control blacks in Lake County. He was a violent man but not necessarily a perverted one. Faint praise it may be but there is nothing in the historical record for example, to suggest that McCall would have condoned castrating anyone, a common practice of the era in some cases.[10]Dunn, The Beast in Florida, p.17.

McCall presents an enigma as a racist, one who hid black prisoners from a lynch mob and who stood alone in defense of the Groveland black community, even firing tear gas into a mob of whites that included some of his own friends. McCall was indeed a racist, but he fired upon the rioting whites because he believed, above all else, in law and order. The mob was treading on his turf, and McCall would have none of it, friends or not. Another reason for the sheriff’s defense of the Groveland blacks was the fact that McCall knew these people. They were in a sense his niggers. He knew most of them by their names, and he knew that none of them had anything to do with the alleged attack on Norma Padgett. Another reason for McCall’s action that night was the fact that whites in power needed blacks as laborers and servants. It was not in the economic interest of the white-power elite to have their labor force run out of town due to this incident. Often, in rural communities during this time, it was the sheriff’s job to keep the black workforce in check and on their jobs.[11]Dunn, A History of Florida Through Black Eyes, p.17.

See also: Florida House apologizes for racial injustice of 1949 ‘Groveland Four’ rape case 

References

References
1 Dunn, A History of Florida Through Black Eyes, p.3.
2 Dunn, A History of Florida Through Black Eyes, p.7.
3 Dunn, A History of Florida Through Black Eyes, p.8.
4 Dunn, A History of Florida Through Black Eyes, p.2.
5 Dunn, The Beast in Florida, p.11.
6 Dunn, A History of Florida Through Black Eyes, p.10-12.
7 Dunn, A History of Florida Through Black Eyes, p.13.
8 Dunn, A History of Florida Through Black Eyes, p.15.
9 Dunn, A History of Florida Through Black Eyes, p.16.
10 Dunn, The Beast in Florida, p.17.
11 Dunn, A History of Florida Through Black Eyes, p.17.