The Groveland Four (1949)
In 1949, when a black person in Lake County Florida pondered the word “cracker”, a flat, tasteless biscuit did not come to mind; Lake County Sheriff Willis V. McCall did. Just at the start of the modern civil rights movement in Florida, the sensational killing of a black man by this blustery sheriff, while the man was in his custody, both terrified and energized black Florida. 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. According to author Ben Green, an expert on the Groveland incident:
He was a pioneer of sorts: the prototype of the racist southern sheriff. A dozen years before Bull Connor in Birmingham or Jim Clark in Selma would come to national prominence, there was Willis V. McCall of Lake County, Florida, who is indisputably the most feared and vilified sheriff in the country. At six feet one inch and 240 pounds, dressed in his trademark ten-gallon Stetson and size thirteen cowboy boots, McCall is a quintessential good old boy and a consummate politician, equally adept at charming the womenfolk or regaling the men with stories of moonshine raids and bolita rings. When first elected, in 1944, McCall was just an obscure fruit inspector, but the Groveland case catapulted him into the national spotlight. Once there, he never left it.[i]
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. For example, Florida’s NAACP chief, Harry T. Moore, was not a Communist nor was he a sympathizer, but he was seen by many conservative whites as being under the influence of Communists and other left-wing extremists. In the typical southern view, these extremists included “outside agitators” like the NAACP, and Jewish-controlled newspapers, such as the New York Times . The use of violence against those who were perceived as outside agitators, dupes and “Reds” was practically sanctioned in the conservative white body-politic of the era, particularly in the South. Events in Groveland, near Lakeland, nudged Florida blacks closer to overt activism and support for black organizations like the NAACP.
The Groveland incident started with what was probably a lie. In the early hours of July 16, 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. There was no accusation of rape. 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 Shepherd 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 they had physical wounds to prove it. They also had alibis. Greenlee was in the Lake County Jail at the time of the alleged assault. Shepherd and Irvin claimed to have been at a nightclub in Altamonte Springs.[ii]
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.[iii]
Alone, Sheriff McCall confronted the mob as they attacked the black settlement. He used tear gas to disperse the group, firing twice into the crowd, and ultimately convincing the men to go home. According to historian Michael Newton, who has written extensively on the subject, “Sheriff McCall . . . had tough words for the mob. ‘I am going to break that up, down there,’ he said. ‘I’ve played around with them long enough.’”[iv]
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. 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.[v]
On August 11, the three blacks were arraigned in Tavares and charged with rape. 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. 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.[vi] This is a highly doubtful account, given Thomas’s condition. He may have been executed while the law enforcement officer in charge purposely looked away.
A reporter asked whether it had been possible to capture Thomas alive. A member of the posse laconically replied that Thomas had tried to get away. “Turning to a deputy who had been assigned to lead the posse, the reporter asked, ‘Where were you at the time?’ ‘I was looking the other way’, the deputy said.” [vii] It was too bad for Ernest Thomas that McCall was not on the scene when he was finally caught.
McCall was a violent man, but faint praise that it may be, there is nothing in the historical record to suggest that McCall would have allowed an enraged posse to shoot an unarmed and exhausted Ernest Thomas in the woods of Taylor County. McCall was a racist, but above all else, he was a self-defined “law n order” man, often morphing the words together. He did not put up with lynch mobs in Lake County and would not have allowed one in Taylor County had he been there. Ernest Thomas was murdered by a rogue posse.
The NAACP took on the case of the three jailed defendants; and Frank Williams, a young black attorney from the organization’s Legal Defense Fund, was sent to assist the local attorney representing the men. 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.
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.[viii]
After about ninety minutes of deliberation, the jury returned with guilty verdicts for all three defendants.[ix] Irvin and Shepherd were given death sentences, but the jury recommended mercy for Greenlee, due to his youth.[x] 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. 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.[xi]
This ruling outraged whites in central Florida 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 prosecutor, 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.[xii]
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.”[xiii]
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.[xiv] 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.
In any case, why would the prisoners, 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 in Marion County for the crimes against the Padgettes. There was one black man on the jury. No imagination was required to assume how he would have voted if he wished to continue to live in central Florida.
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.”[xv]
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.”[xvi]
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.[xvii]
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.[xviii]
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.[xix] 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.[xx]
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.[xxi] 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.”[xxii] 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.[xxiii]
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?’”[xxiv] 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.[xxv] 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.”[xxvi]
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.’”[xxvii] McCall was charged with murder in the Vickers case. Few blacks in Lake County were surprised by the Not Guilty verdict.
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.
Long after leaving office, McCall bristled at being called a racist who abused blacks. But, of course, the man did abuse blacks, and he was a racist. But McCall was not altogether different from most other racists of the era. Most Southerners did not necessarily hate blacks, an idea that many Northerners, even today, cannot comprehend. Most Southerners simply saw Negroes as beneath themselves. As long as a black person accepted and behaved in accord with that view, there was peace between the races. On the other hand, those blacks who carried themselves as equal to whites (“uppity niggers”) invited scorn at the very least, and possibly more.
McCall, and many other whites in the South, were confident that they knew the nature of Negroes. When giving his assessment of blacks, McCall wrote, “Just as long as you got a little handful of ‘em together, you gonna have a little bolita, a little moonshine, and a whole lot of sex. Anybody that don’t know that, don’t understand ‘em, and that’s all there is to it.” McCall once explained his views on race by offering this analogy: “Well, I’ve got a jackass right out there in my pasture beside one of the finest horses you ever saw, and I don’t mistreat the jackass because he’s a jackass.”[xxviii]
McCall’s affections for the jackass may well have been genuine, but then, a jackass is a jackass and not a thoroughbred horse. “The inherent racism in his (McCall’s) 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 whom they saw more often than they did their own mothers. Some, if not many, truly did love their black caretakers and wept at their gravesides as fervidly as did members of the woman’s family. But tears for ‘ol’ Mammy’ did not necessarily connote acceptance of black equality.”[xxix] McCall was a racist in the sense as were most southern whites: blacks are all right, even lovable, as long as they stay in their place.
The Vickers episode came at a difficult time for Sheriff McCall who was running for re-election against Guy Bliss, a newcomer and former police officer from Detroit who had settled in Mt. Dora. McCall lost with 11,895 votes to 13,877 for Bliss.[xxx] 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 strutting racists, such as McCall. He retired to his home in Umatilla and later 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 April 29, 1994.[xxxi] With his exit, gone were the days in Florida of the swaggering, pot-bellied, cigar-smoking, blackjack-swinging, racist white law enforcement officer, imbibed with virtual immunity from prosecution for abusing blacks. The era of the “High Sheriff” was over.
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 are married to each other.[xxxii]
“Freedom Never Dies: A PBS Documentary Sheds New Light on Central Florida’s Civil Rights Martyr” Jim Clark, Orlando Sentinel Orlando Magazine 16, January, 2001.
[iii] McCall, An Autobiography by Willis B. McCall Sheriff of Lake County, 79.
[iv] Newton, 122.
[v] Lawson, Steven, in Colburn and Landers, The African American Heritage of Florida by Steven F. Lawson, David R. Colburn, and Darryl Paulson, 301.
[vi] Newton, 123 also see “Freedom Never Dies” Orlando Sentinel, January 2001.
[vii] Kennedy, Stetson, The Klan Unmasked, 236.
[viii] The St. Petersburg Times, “Trial will Start”, September 4, 1949.
[ix] The Tampa Tribune, September 4, 1949.
[x] The Orlando Morning Sentinel, Powers, September 9, 1949.
[xi] Newton, 124.
[xii] Mt. Dora Topic, Sept. 1, 1949 also see “Freedom Never Dies: A PBS Documentary Sheds New Light on Central Florida’s Civil Rights Martyr” Jim Clark, Orlando Sentinel Orlando Magazine 16, January, 2001.
[xiii] McCall, 24.
[xiv] Newton, 124.
[xv] Williams, Thurgood Marshall, 154.
[xvii] Ibid., 155.
[xix] “Freedom Never Dies: A PBS Documentary Sheds New Light on Central Florida’s Civil Rights Martyr” Jim Clark, Orlando Sentinel Orlando Magazine 16, January, 2001.
[xx] Williams, 156.
[xxi] Orlando Sentinel, Dec. 14, 1955; Mount Dora Tropic Dec 22, 1955, and Lawson, Colburn, and Paulson, in Colburn and Landers, 318.
[xxii] Williams, 157.
[xxiii] Lawson, Colburn, and Paulson, in Colburn and Landers, 320.
[xxiv] Lawson, Colburn, and Paulson, in Colburn and Landers, 298- 325 and Orlando Sentinel, March 15, 1956, 1; Tampa Tribune, May 5, 1956.
[xxv] Orlando Sentinel, January, 2001, Magazine and Williams, Thurgood Marshall,319
[xxvi] Griffin, John, interviewed by the author, Groveland, Florida, 2008.
[xxvii] McCall, Autobiography, 92-97.
[xxviii] McCall, 14
[xxix] Dunn, The Beast, 174.
[xxx] Ibid., 172.
[xxxi] The St Petersburg Times, Nov 28, 1999.
[xxxii] Flavor Magazine, Spring 2009, Black Florida Life and Style, 7.