“We have met the enemy and he is us.” Pogo
A few weeks ago the Florida House of Representatives issued an apology to the survivors of the Groveland Four, also known as the Groveland Boys. I had known nothing about the four black men accused of raping a white teenager in Groveland, Florida, in 1949 until I saw Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America by Gilbert King at Greenlight Bookstore. I looked at the back cover of the paperback and saw that the book was about racial injustice stemming from a rape charge. I put the book back down thinking I essentially knew this story already since I had read much about the Scottsboro Boys. And, of course, I had read To Kill a Mockingbird. But finally, the third or fourth time I picked up the book, I bought it.
I was surprised. I found King’s book a page-turner, and while it bore similarities to other racial tragedies, the story was not something I had read before. That would have been impossible. I learned many things from Devil in the Grove including that every story of injustice is unique. Every story of injustice is worth telling and hearing.
This story started when a seventeen-year-old said that she and her husband had been attacked in their stalled car and she had been raped by four black men. Three of those men were quickly arrested while the fourth fled. A hundred-person posse using tracking dogs found the fourth in hiding. When the fugitive emerged and supposedly threatened that posse with a pistol, he was gunned down.
Meanwhile, an angry crowd besieged the local jail. When that mob learned that the arrested men were being held elsewhere, it rampaged in the black section of Groveland firing guns and burning buildings. After several days, during which most of the blacks fled their homes to seek safety elsewhere, the National Guard quelled the rioting.
Although the police said two suspects confessed, those two said the confessions were beaten out of them. At trial, the confessions were not presented. The doctor who examined the married teenager did not testify. (It had been suggested that the girl cried rape to explain her bruises from her husband’s beating.) Footprints at the scene did not match the suspects’ shoes. The trial’s result, of course, was a foregone conviction. The youngest of the three men was given a life sentence. He never appealed to avoid the possibility of a death sentence if an appeal were successful and a retrial held. The other two were sentenced to death. They appealed.
The executive director of the Florida NAACP protested the convictions and called for the removal and prosecution of the sheriff. On Christmas night of 1951, a bomb exploded under the bedroom of the NAACP’s director’s house. He and his wife were killed. Nobody was identified as responsible for this double homicide until a 2005 investigation named four then-dead, long-time members of the KKK as suspects.
The two appealed convictions were reversed, and a new trial order. The prisoners were then being held in the state prison, and the sheriff of Lake County, which included Groveland, picked them up to take them back to Lake County ostensibly for trial. The sheriff reported that the two attacked him and that he shot each three times. One was killed at that scene; the other feigned death and lived. The sheriff was exonerated of any wrongdoing in the shooting.
Represented by Thurgood Marshall, the surviving defendant was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death again. The Florida governor later commuted that sentence to life in prison.
Gilbert King presents strong evidence to show likelihoods that the girl was not raped; that the prisoners were beaten; that forensic evidence was fabricated; and that the sheriff shot his two prisoners without provocation. This information has now led to the apology by the Florida House of Representatives.
King, however, does much more than relate the injustices done to the Groveland Four. He places the rape charge and its aftermath into a broader picture of northern Florida society in the post-World War II era. Black’s houses were burned; black veterans were threatened for wearing their uniforms after their discharges; other blacks were simply beaten; black maids were raped by white employers. Blacks could not vote; they could not serve on juries. They were not allowed to hold jobs of importance in the white society. The schools were segregated, and few blacks could obtain a meaningful education.
All this might seem to be a product of simple racism, but King shows that the situation was more complicated than that. The citrus industry boomed after WWII. The government had improved roads so citrus products could be more easily distributed around the country. Processes to concentrate juice had emerged, and government contracts to buy concentrated juices had been let. But Lake County had a problem; the labor force was thin. Of course, believers in free markets would predict that the cost of labor would increase, but the Lake County citrus growers and canners did not want that free market. They wanted cheap labor.
Racism is a large part of the reasons that blacks were kept “in their place,” but the maintenance of a cheap labor pool was also important. Thus, when workers were needed, blacks were arrested and charged with vagrancy. They got heavy fines and had no choice but to work for the low wages in the groves, often under the watch of armed guards, as part of a process called “debt peonage.” All this required the wealthy whites to urge an interesting line; to keep blacks in their place, but don’t make the oppression so bad that they leave the area. Some places in Florida had been so harsh that blacks had fled to other parts of the country depleting their cheap labor forces. Lake County did not want that. Be harsh, but not so harsh that the black workers left. This more subtle, economic racism turned a blind eye to the actions of the KKK and its ilk as long as it did not cause the Lake County blacks to find homes elsewhere.
We can properly call the society presented by Devil in the Grove racist, but we should also put another label on it. This was terrorism; a word headline writers used in the 1950s to described the happenings in Lake County. The terrorism did not come from isolated pockets in the community; it was a society of terrorists. If it was not state-sponsored terrorism, it certainly was state-condoned terrorism.
Lake County was not alone. Such terrorism was accepted through a large swath of the country for an extensive part of the country’s existence. Even if slavery should not be formally labeled as terrorism because it was legal, the unchecked terrorism that was inflicted on black society lasted from the end of Reconstruction through the 1960s when it tapered off . . . somewhat. The largest group of terrorists who have ever operated in this country were not foreigners; they were good red-blooded Americans.
Many of us want to deny that the Groveland travesty was typical. Surely it was an outlier. It happened in the South after all. This is captured by a blurb attributed to the Chicago Tribune on my copy of King’s book: “A powerful and well-told drama of Southern injustice.” Southern injustice, not American injustice. As if we are not all one country. (We will ignore that NAACP facilities were bombed in Boston in 1976; in Tacoma, Washington, in 1983; and in Colorado Springs in 2015.)
We should also recognize that the “benefits” of this terrorism extended far beyond the citrus grove owners. For example, the bankers who loaned money to those owners benefited. The canners of grapefruit sections gained from the artificially low cost of the fruit, and, of course, consumers throughout the country benefited from lower costs. It was not, however, just the Florida citrus industry that benefited from our racial terrorism, but all employers, including the genteel white lady with a black maid or cook, seeking cheap labor.
Today we fear terrorism against our country. It is a diffuse fear, one spread to all parts of our society. The terrorist is seen as other; one with roots or connections or sympathies to something foreign; one who has dark skin. This terrorism seems incomprehensible, but perhaps we could better understand it if we our examined our own history. This country’s foundation has many pillars, but one of them has been terrorism.
The victims of this homegrown terrorism were seen as “other,” and that made it easier to target them. The concept of otherness is powerful. Surely it has been easier for us to wage military actions in places where we see the population as “other,” but we should realize that to those societies we are seen as the foreign outsider. For the terrorist we now fear, we are now the “other,” and that makes it easier for terrorism to occur against us.
Perhaps we can better grasp today’s if we can understand our own history and how our homegrown terrorism flourished, for then we might recognize “We have met the terrorist, . . . “