Dark chapter in Florida’s racist history moves one more step to formal apologies, pardons

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“It was Florida’s version of ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird,’” Sen. Gary Farmer said to the state’s Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday as he introduced his bill – SCR 920 – that would lead to the pardons of four men killed and accused of crimes they didn’t commit.

It was July 16, 1949, before dawn. Willie and Norma Padgett were out on a lonesome rural road in Lake County, Florida, northwest of Orlando, when the car they were in stalled.

They reportedly told police they’d been at a dance and were on their way home, even though it was very late. Four young black men — who lived in nearby Groveland, essentially a shack town for black s to live next to the orange groves they labored in — happened along and offered to lend a hand.

Sammy Shepherd and Walter Irvin, U.S. Army veterans who’d helped stave off fascism from taking over the world, were with buddies Charles Greenlee and Ernest Thomas. But something bad happened.

The four tried to tried to help, they later told police. The Padgett’s, white, had a different version. Willie told the cops the boys beat him up and stole their car, Norma riding shotgun. She had been raped, she told authorities.

All but Thomas were soon rounded up, with Thomas shot dead, egregiously, 200 miles north trying to get away.

That’s the way it was told then. But that wasn’t what happened – not all. Two of the accused were in Orlando at the time of the crime. Evidence was kept from defense showing the men weren’t guilty, an FBI investigation later discovered.

A jury found the three men guilty in just 90 minutes. But something didn’t smell right in Florida to the U.S. Attorney General in Washington. A new trial was ordered for Irvin and Shepherd on appeal. Unfortunately, Greenlee didn’t appeal.

When local Sheriff Willis V. McCall went to fetch the two to transport them to the trial venue, he had his own plans. He pulled over after picking them up, ordered them out of the car and shot both of them, reportedly bragging about it in his radio afterward. Irvin lived, even though he sustained another shot when the sheriff and a deputy discovered he was still alive. The sheriff had said the black men tried to overpower him, forcing him to shoot them.

Irvin lived for his next trial, telling his version of everything that had happened.

At the second trial, the legendary Thurgood Marshall, later a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, represented Irvin.

But the Florida jury still convicted Irvin. They gave him a death sentence.

Gov. LeRoy Collins later stayed the execution, commuting the sentence to life in prison in 1954.

Greenlee was paroled in 1962. Irvin was paroled in 1968.

McCall, who continued to be reelected, despite his corruption, was forced from office in 1973 after a black man died on his watch, having been kicked to death by deputies.

Sen. Farmer’s bill has one more committee hurdle to go before a vote in the Senate.

The story of the Groveland Four, as they were dubbed, has been written about in a Pulitzer Prize-winning book and was the story was the subject of a film.

It was a “grave injustice,” Sen. Farmer said. The apology and formal pardon would be issued by the governor’s office, nearly  70 years after the fact.

Les Neuhaus is an all-platform journalist, with specialties in print reporting and writing. In addition to Florida Politics, he freelances as a general-assignment and breaking-news reporter for most of the major national daily newspapers, along with a host of digital media, and a human rights group. A former foreign correspondent across Africa and Asia, including the Middle East, Les covered a multitude of high-profile events in chronically-unstable nations. He’s a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, in which he served as a Security Policeman, and graduated from the University of Tennessee with a B.A. in political science. He is a proud father to his daughter and enjoys spending time with his family.