The Groveland Four (1949) Adapted from The Beast in Florida by Dr. Marvin Dunn
In 1949 when a black person in Lake County pondered the word “cracker,” a flat, tasteless biscuit did not come to mind–Lake County Sheriff Willis V. McCall did. In the person of McCall, the Groveland incident produced for blacks one of the most feared and controversial public officials in the history of the state. McCall was Florida’s “Bull” Conner, the racist sheriff in Birmingham, Alabama who, during civil rights demonstrations in that city in the 1960s, was seen on national television setting police dogs on demonstrators. The killing of a black man by this blustery sheriff while the man was in his custody both terrified and energized black Florida. The incident nudged Florida blacks and some whites closer to overt activism and support for black organizations like the NAACP.
It started with what was probably a lie. In the early hours of 16 July 1949, two whites, Willie and Norma Padgett, reported to the police that a terrible crime had been committed near Groveland. They alleged that four young black men had assaulted and robbed Willie and had kidnapped his wife, Norma. Willie claimed the men drove a late model Mercury with Lake County license plates but he could not make out the number because a handkerchief partially covered the tag.
Within an hour of the accusations Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepard and Charles Greenlee were arrested for the crimes, and another young black, Ernest Thomas, remained on the run. Greenlee was sixteen years old, the only minor among the accused group. Police claimed the men in custody had confessed. The men would later say they were beaten into confessing and had physical wounds to prove it. As word of the 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 the fourth man, Ernest Thomas.
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, the mob was not finally 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 destroying and shooting into black homes. Fearing the worst, black families left their homes with help from several white residents. Alone, Sheriff McCall confronted the mob as they attacked the black settlement. He used teargas to disperse the group, firing twice into the crowd and ultimately convincing the men to go home. Later he had harsh words for the mob: “I am going to break that up down there. I’ve played around with them long enough.”i The next day, a second mob of angry whites arrived and congregated along Highway 50, which runs through Groveland. They were unable to find any blacks to attack in the area. After this visitation, the NAACP and local blacks begged Governor Fuller Warren for help. The governor sent in the National Guard to “restore order,” but many black homes had already been severely damaged.ii
On August 11, the three blacks were arraigned in Tavares. A week passed as Ernest Thomas, the fourth man, eluded a posse led by Sheriff McCall and three other sheriffs. Thomas was finally shot and killed in the woods of Taylor County, nearly two hundred miles northwest of the origin of the search.iii Exhausted and bruised, the fugitive collapsed on the ground as the posse approached. He was shot on the spot. Members of the posse would later report that the man was shot because he was “belligerent,” a highly doubtful account given Thomas’ condition.
The national NAACP took on the case of the three jailed defendants with Frank Williams, a young black attorney from the organization’s Legal Defense Fund being sent in to assist the local attorney who represented the men.iv Williams soon concluded that the charges against the defendants were highly questionable. In contrast to the sheriff’s announcement that the accused had admitted their guilt, Williams, in speaking to Irvin, Shepherd and Greenlee, learned that the deputies had beaten the men until they agreed to confess. A special investigator agreed that the men’s wounds corroborated their accounts of the beatings.v
Prior to the trial, Alex Akerman, Jr., the defendants’ local attorney, petitioned the court for a change of venue since he believed the defendants could not get a fair trial in Lake County. He also complained that there were not enough blacks on the county’s juries. The presiding judge denied both motions and the widely followed case went to trial.vi After about ninety minutes of deliberation, the jury returned with guilty verdicts for all three defendants.
Irvin and Shepherd were given death sentences and the jury recommended mercy for Greenley due to his youth. Appeals on the death sentences were filed in state court but later dismissed. Greenlee did not join the appeal, fearing a retrial could send him to the death chamber. However, less than a year later the United States Supreme Court unanimously overturned the Shepherd and Irvin convictions, finding that the men’s civil rights had been violated since there were no blacks on the jury.vii This ruling outraged whites in the area, who believed the court was too liberal and that the guilty parties might escape justice. By some accounts, the Klan became involved at this point, whipping up anti-Supreme Court sentiment and vowing to bring justice by other means. County Attorney Jesse Hunter was eager to try the case again. It would be necessary to bring the defendants from state prison and do everything over. Hunter believed the results would be the same: guilty.
In November 1951, while transferring Irvin and Shepard 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 deputy named Yates were transporting the defendants. The two men were in McCall’s car and 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, while driving along the back roads 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 tire. McCall related this version of the events: “As they got out, Sheppard hit me with a flashlight that was lying on the seat. He told Irvin to get my gun. The lick knocked me down 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.”viii
McCall thought both defendants were dead, but 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. Irvin said he pretended to be dead, but Yates, having rushed to the scene, shined a flashlight into his eyes, discovered that he was still alive, and shot him in the neck.ix
We will never know exactly what happened that night but McCall’s accusation that the men jumped him may have been true. Irvin’s account of the events left questions unanswered and contradicts 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 fibers were meshed with the clothing the men were wearing. It also appeared that the shots were fired from very close range, contradicting Irvin’s account that they were several feet away when McCall shot them. Then there is the question of whether Yates actually shot Irvin. According to witnesses at the scene who had rushed there upon 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, all of them town notables. In addition, ballistic reports show that all of the bullets that struck Irvin came from McCall’s gun.
In any case, why would the men, given the opportunity, not have jumped McCall? Their lives were at stake. They must have known that they were not going to be found innocent of this crime in a second trial, even though the case had been moved to another rural county. They had nothing to lose and everything to gain by making an escape. Still, McCall must share some of the blame for having put himself in such a vulnerable position– alone on a dark road with two desperate men who were handcuffed together but not shackled. If the men had been shackled together, as would have been prudent and probably recommended in law enforcement primers, the alleged attack upon the sheriff could not have happened.
Upon recovering from his injuries, Irvin was put on trial for the crimes against the Padgetts. This time Irvin would be defended by Thurgood Marshall himself. But the local attorney, Williams, 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.”x But Marshall was drawn to the spotlight that was now on Groveland and he was not going to play second fiddle to a junior attorney.
With Williams gone, Marshall personally led the NAACP legal team to defend Irvin at the second trial in Marion County. And right from the start, they faced trouble. In the December 1951 proceedings, Judge Truman Futch ruled that Marshall and Jack Greenberg were not allowed to represent their clients because the NAACP, according to the judge, was a group of agitators who had “stirred up trouble in the community.”xi
But of course, Marshall would not back down. A few days later, speaking before an electrified Mount Zion Baptist Church in Miami, he rose to full height and defied the white powers of Florida to stop him from defending his client: “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.”xii
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.xiii
Marshall had to also cope with the “good-ol’-boy” justice system. <ex>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.”xiv
Marshall began by eliciting testimony from a white soldier who found the girl wandering on a highway the morning after the crime. The soldier testified that the woman never told him she had been raped, only that she had been kidnapped. He added that she said she could not identify the men who grabbed her because it was too dark. Marshall also got the sheriff’s deputies to concede that they had no medical evidence the woman had been raped.
He next tried to undermine the sheriff’s effort to put Irvin at the scene. The sheriff claimed prints in the mud matched Irvin’s shoes. However, under questioning from Marshall, a criminologist testified that while the shoe prints matched Irvin’s, the prints had been made when the shoes were empty,” implying that the officers had taken the shoes to the scene after the fact. Marshall began his closing argument by reminding the jury that there was no evidence any rape had occurred. He closed with a patriotic appeal. “There’s nobody who believes in the democratic principles of government more than my people,” he said. “Cases like this are cases that try men’s souls.”xv
Marshall would later report that as he was talking to the jurors he noticed that every one of the men had on a Shriner’s pin. <ex>After the jury went out, Marshall went to Judge Futch’s chamber and asked if he had seen the state’s attorney 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. Marshall said, “I’m going to make an objection.” Futch told him he would be overruled. “There’s nothing racial about that,” Judge Futch told Marshall. “He does it all the time, whether you’re white, black, or green. He gives the distress signal all the time.”
The jury came back within ninety minutes. One court observer later told Marshall they only took that long “because the men wanted to smoke their cigars.”xvi
They asked for the death penalty, and the judge obliged.
Irvin’s lawyers moved for a third trial.xvii 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 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.xviii In issuing his decision, “Collins followed a procedure unusual to him. He had an office stenographer take down every word he said in connection with the case for fear of being misquoted.”xix
The governor’s action may seem fair at first glance, but one wonders why Irvin was not pardoned outright if the governor believed that his guilt had not been established conclusively? Collins’ 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. In a compromise decision that left a likely innocent man in prison, the governor bowed to the political realities of the day.
Even so, his 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. She yelled at the governor, “You’re the one who let off that nigger that raped me. Would you have done that if it had been your wife?”xx Collins reportedly was shaken by the experience.
Greenlee was paroled in 1962 and Irwin was released in 1968.xxi 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.”xxii
Governor Reubin O. Askew suspended Sheriff McCall in 1973 for kicking a black prisoner to death. The man was killed by a blow to the abdomen that caused peritonitis. The victim was Tommy Vickers from Miami, who had been arrested and returned to Lake County to answer for a traffic violation. According to McCall, the man was mentally disturbed and had to be restrained by several officers in Miami before he was brought to Lake County.xxiii He had been creating a disturbance in the Lake County jail for several days when one morning he threw his food against the wall. The sheriff ordered two trusties, both black, to clean up the mess. When they entered Vicker’s cell, he attacked them. McCall explained, “Vickers was choking one of the trusties. I kicked his arm between the wrist and elbow . . . I did not kick him in the abdomen.”xxiv
McCall said that after he kicked Vickers, the man “got up on his hands and knees and charged, making a roaring noise. 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 could be. That’s when I said, “That damn Nigger ain’t as crazy as he would have you believe.”xxv The sheriff was tried for murder by an Ocala jury, which found him not guilty.
McCall was running for reelection against a Republican named Guy Bliss at the time of the incident. Bliss was a former police officer from Detroit who moved to Mount Dora. McCall lost with 11,895 votes to 13,877 for Bliss. Real political contextual change had finally arrived in central Florida. McCall was shocked by the defeat, which he blamed on “newcomers to the county” and a heavy black vote. He was right on both counts. Blacks now voted in meaningful numbers and the new whites who were moving in had less tolerance for racists such as McCall. He retired to his home in Umatilla.xxvi Later he would say that he made more money dabbling in real estate than he ever did as sheriff. Willis V. McCall died of a heart attack on 29 April 1994.
With the turning out of McCall, gone were the days of the swaggering, pot-belled, cigar-smoking, blackjack-totting, racist white law enforcement officer imbibed with virtual immunity from prosecution for abusing blacks. By 2009, central Florida had changed so drastically that Val Demings, the Orlando chief of police, and Jerry Demings, the sheriff of Orange County, the two top law enforcement officers in Orange County (which has a white majority) were both black. They were also married to each other.xxvii
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?”xxviii
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. In this sense, Willis V. McCall was not the Beast reborn, as was the brutish Town Marshall Stephens of Dunnellon who clearly hated them. McCall was merely 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 to suggest, for example that McCall would have condoned castrating anyone.
The Groveland incident occurred during the period of the “Red scare” in America when the mere label of Communist or Communist sympathizer placed a person, white or black, in mortal danger from extremist elements, especially in the South. Florida’s NAACP chief, Harry T. Moore, for example, was not a Communist nor was he a sympathizer but he was seen by many conservative
i Tampa Tribune, July 18, 21, 22, 1949, July 19, 25, 1952; Mount Dora Tropic, 21 July 1949; McCall, Autobiography, 20-22; Newton, Invisible Empire, 122; Green, Before His Time, 86.
ii Tampa Tribune, July 18, 21, 22, 1949, July 19, 25, 1952; Mount Dora Tropic, 21 July 1949; McCall, Autobiography, 20-22; Newton, Invisible Empire, 122.
iii McCall, Autobiography, 22-23.
iv Lawson, Colburn, Paulson, “Groveland,” 8.
vi Orlando Sentinel, Aug 26, 31, Sept 2, 3, 4, 7, 9, 1949, April 10, 1950; St. Petersburg Times, Aug 31, Sept 1, 3, 4, 7, 1949; Tampa Tribune, Sept 2, 3, 4, 6, 1949; Mount Dora Tropic, Sept 1, 8, 15, 1949, Apr 20, May 25, 1950.
vii Newton, Invisible Empire, 124.
viii McCall, Autobiography, 24.
ix Lawson, Colburn, Paulson, “Groveland,” 18; Orlando Sentinel Nov 7-12, 21, 1951; St. Petersburg Times, Nov. 7-9, 11, 1951; Tampa Tribune, Nov. 8-10, 1951; Mount Dora Tropic, Nov. 8, 15, Dec. 6,13, 1951; Newton, Invisible Empire, 124.
x Juan Williams, Thurgood Marshall, 154,citing Jack Greenberg interview with Columbia Oral History Project.
xi Juan Williams, Thurgood Marshall, 154, citing Jack Greenberg interview with Columbia Oral History Project.
xii Juan Williams, Thurgood Marshall, 154, citing “Guard NAACP Chief,” Pittsburgh Courier, 22 Dec 1951.
xiii Juan Williams, Thurgood Marshall, 155.
xv Juan Williams, Thurgood Marshall, 156.
xvii Orlando Evening Star, 19 Feb 1952.
xviii Orlando Sentinel, 14 Dec 1955; Mount Dora Tropic, 22 Dec 1955.
xix Orlando Sentinel, 14 Dec 1955; Mount Dora Tropic, 22 Dec 1955.
xx Lawson, Colburn, Paulson, “Groveland,” 24.
xxi Orlando Sentinel Magazine, Jan. 2001.
xxii John Griffin, interview.
xxiii McCall, Autobiography, 92-97.
xxvi Ibid.; Newton, Invisible Empire, 205.
xxvii Flavour: Black Florida Life and Style, Spring 2009, 7.
xxviii McCall, Autobiography,