Pulitzer Prize Winning Author Lectures About Forgotten Civil Rights Case

Mar 17, 2014

by Cary McMullen | Publications editor
An overlooked but significant case in African-Americans’ struggle for civil rights was the subject of a lecture by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Gilbert King on March 13 at Florida Southern.

King’s lecture, sponsored by the Lawton Chiles, Jr., Center for Florida History, was based on his recent book, Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America, which won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction. It describes the 1949 case of four African-American men accused of the rape of a young white woman in Groveland, a Central Florida community just north of Orlando. The men were defended by Thurgood Marshall, who later successfully argued the famous Brown v. Board of Education case before the U.S. Supreme Court and became a Supreme Court justice himself.

“Marshall was unquestionably irreplaceable in the civil rights struggle. He was described as a lawyer a white man would listen to and a black man could trust,” King said.

The case was all-too-common in the Jim Crow South and was made worse by the actions of Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall, who was well-known for his corruption and racism. King said it is likely there was no crime to begin with, but McCall arrested three men, then hunted down and killed a fourth he identified as a suspect. Although Marshall lost the case in the initial trial and two of the defendants were sentenced to death, the case was unanimously overturned by U.S. Supreme Court and a retrial was ordered.

McCall intended there would be no retrial, King said. He retrieved the two defendants from state prison and shot them by the side of the road. One survived, and the FBI investigated, but the case was dropped “for the tranquility of the South,” in the words of a U.S. District judge. The surviving defendant was convicted a second time, but his death sentence was later commuted, and he died in prison.

King said although the case seemed like a failure, it caused a sensation in the media at the time, and the publicity fostered sympathy for the civil rights struggle. The NAACP was able to raise about $100,000 – “which was a lot of money at the time,” he said – and it was used to fund the Brown v. Board of Education case, which struck down “separate but equal” policies in public education.

King said much of the evidence in the Groveland case had been hidden from the public for 60 years.