Wil S. Hylton talked about his book, Vanished: The Sixty-Year Search for the Missing Men of World War II, in which he talks about a U.S. Air Force bomber carrying 11 men that vanished over the Pacific archipelago of Palau on September 1, 1944. Since the disappearance, the U.S. government, the children of the missing airmen and a team of scientists and scuba divers searched the archipelago for clues.



The Groveland Four

This is the harrowing story of four African-American males wrongly accused and convicted of raping a young, white female in Groveland, Florida, in 1949. My eyes were truly opened to a largely unknown–but very important–chapter of the African-American struggle in this country right before the rise of the Civil Rights Movement. Talk about a golden opportunity for me to share some history with the rest of the world.

The film was produced with the generous support of “The Groveland Four: The Sad Saga of a Legal Lynching,” a book by Gary Corsair.

Groveland Summary


Black soldiers returning to Florida from military service at the end of World War II found that although they had taken part in changing the history of the world, their world was little changed. In rural Lake County, citrus was still king and blacks were needed to work in the fields, especially at harvesting time when a shortage of labor meant oranges falling to the ground to rot.

McCall in hatSheriff Willis V. McCall

That was the world Sammy Shepherd and Walter Irvin returned to when they came home to their parents’ Groveland homes after serving in the Army. Groveland had become was the center of black activity in Lake County. They immediately attracted the attention of Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall, whose brutal treatment of blacks had become widely known. McCall’s major job was to keep union organizers out of the county and make sure there was a steady supply of fruit pickers who were willing to work for low wages.

Shepherd and Irvin were violating several of McCall’s rules. The two continued to wear their Army uniforms, as if to show that they were somehow better, they refused to work in the fields, and their fathers had demonstrated an independence that did not sit well with the whites. McCall told them bluntly to remove their uniforms and get to work in the white-owned orange groves.

Shepherd’s father, Henry, had his own farm, carved out of what had been considered worthless swamp land. He had prospered during the war and became an icon for blacks living in substandard conditions. But for whites, he was a symbol of what could happen if blacks farmed their own property and stopped working for whites. The Irvin family had also done well.

For McCall, there were other disturbing trends which threatened to upset the power structure. Harry T. Moore, the executive director of the Florida NAACP, had formed the Progressive Voters League to encourage blacks to register to vote and to endorse political candidates. Between 1947 and 1950, the number of blacks registered to vote in Florida more than doubled to 116,000.

A Charge of Rape

But that progress seemed to disappear in the early morning of July 16, 1949. Exactly what happened in the predawn hours remains a matter of dispute. A young white couple, Willie and Norma Padgett, told police that they were on their way home from a dance when their car stalled on a lonely road. The two said that Shepherd, Irvin and two other blacks, Charles Greenlee and Ernest Thomas, had stopped to help them. But Willie Padgett claimed that the four attacked him and left him on the side of the road while they drove off with his wife. Seventeen-year-old Norma Padgett told police that she was raped.

McCall with prisonersWithin hours, Greenlee, Shepherd, and Irvin were in jail. Thomas fled the county and avoided a posse led by McCall until he was shot and killed about 200 miles northwest of Lake County.

As word spread about the arrest of the three, a crowd gathered at the county jail. An estimated 200 cars carrying 500 to 600 men demanded that McCall turn the three men over to them for their brand of instant justice. According to Ormond Powers, a reporter for the Orlando Morning Sentinel who covered the case, McCall had hidden the suspects in a nearby orange grove, but told the mob they had been transferred to the state prison. Norma and Willie Padgett and Norma’s father were allowed to examine the jail. They told the mob the prisoners were gone and McCall promised that he would see that justice was done and urged them to “let the law handle this calmly.”

A Night of Terror

The members of the mob rejected McCall’s advice. Unable to find the three, the mob looked for a new target. They turned on Groveland. The men drove to Groveland in a caravan and once they arrived, they began shooting into black homes and set them afire. But local blacks apparently had been warned of the approaching caravan and fled. Powers said he remembered blacks being loaded into trucks to get them out of town.

Even with the coming of dawn, the mob was not through. In Groveland, a number of black-owned homes had suffered damage, although the mob saved its greatest vengeance for the home of Henry Shepherd, which was destroyed. They set up blockades on the highway into Groveland and waited for unsuspecting blacks. On July 18, Governor Fuller Warren yielded to the calls of the NAACP and sent in the National Guard. Over the following six days, the Guard gradually restored order.

In Orlando, the president of the Orlando NAACP asked the national office for help and NAACP attorney Franklin Williams promised to come. Williams gathered information that showed the evidence was highly questionable. When Williams met with the three suspects, he found their bodies covered with cuts and bruises – the result of beatings administered by deputies to obtain confessions. The three told Williams that they had been hung from pipes with their feet touching broken glass and clubbed. [View Walter Irvin’s statement to Williams]

Williams had doubts whether the rape had even taken place. Although Norma Padgett claimed to have been raped and kidnapped, a white restaurant owner who gave her a ride after the alleged rape said she did not appear upset and did not mention the rape. Also, she did not claim to have been raped until after talking with her husband. Williams suspected that William Padgett had beaten his wife and the two wanted to hide the truth from her parents, who had warned him against hitting their daughter.

The Trial

Still, a grand jury – which for the first time had a lone black on the panel – quickly indicted the suspects. The major local newspaper, Orlando Morning Sentinel, ran a front page cartoon with three electric chairs and the caption, “No Compromise.” Powers said, “We always ran our cartoons on page one and in color, so you couldn’t miss it. It was big and it provoked, oh man, they started investigating the newspaper and this upset the publisher very much.” As the trial began, the judge rejected a request for a change of venue.

Despite evidence showing that Shepherd and Irvin were in Orlando at the time of the crime, and Greenlee was nineteen miles away, a jury took just ninety minutes to find them guilty. Norma Padgett testified that she had been raped. [Read Norma Padgett’s testimony] Powers, sitting only a few feet away in the courtroom, saw her as a “small slightly built, very young, she was 17 at the time, a little country girl. She was wearing a house dress. . . . She looked as though a slight breath of wind would blow her over. She was a good witness. She told precisely in graphic language which was unusual at that time, what had happened to her and who did it, identified each man. . . .I thought she was a good witness.”

Irvin and Shepherd were sentenced to death and the 16-year-old Greenlee was sentenced to prison. Powers recalled the atmosphere at the trial. “The blacks sat in the balcony. There was no mixed seating back in those days. . . . There were bailiffs of course, many, many bailiffs, deputy sheriffs, special whatever, FBI agents. . . . .The little girl who said she was raped described in detail that incident. The State Attorney Jesse Hunter, Jesse W. Hunter, a self-taught man-he never went to law school. . . .one of the best lawyers I ever saw in my life.”

The NAACP had been successful in attracting nationwide publicity for the case, even printing a booklet called “Groveland U.S.A.” as a device to raise funds for the defense. That publicity led the United States Attorney General J. Howard McGrath to order an Investigation… Although McGrath had wanted a fair probe, the man he chose to direct it could not have been a worse choice. McGrath gave the assignment to United States District Attorney Herbert Phillips of Tampa, whose views of race and the guilt of the three defendants was not significantly different from that of the members of the Groveland mob. He refused to call key witnesses and any attempt at a fair investigation vanished.

The Florida Supreme Court upheld the conviction but the United States Supreme Court unanimously overturned the convictions of Shepherd and Irvin. (Greenlee had not appealed.) The justices cited pretrial publicity, including the cartoon showing the three electric chairs in the Orlando Morning Sentinel.

The Shooting

McCall over bodies The two were set for retrial in Lake County and McCall drove to Raiford State Prison to bring Irvin and Shepherd back to Tavares. McCall said that during the nighttime trip back, he mentioned that one of his tires seemed to be low. McCall said that when he stopped the car to check the tire, and to let Irvin go to the bathroom, Shepherd and Irvin tried to overpower him, even though they were handcuffed together. McCall said he pulled his gun and shot both prisoners. Shepherd was killed, but despite being shot twice, Irvin survived.

Irvin lived to tell a completely different story about that night. He said that McCall pulled the car over to the side of the road and told the two to get out. He pulled his gun and shot Shepherd and Irvin in the upper right chest. Irvin said he pretended to be dead and heard McCall brag on his police radio, “I got rid of them; killed the sons of bitches.” When a deputy arrived and turned his flashlight on Irvin, he noticed that he was still alive and suggested to McCall that Irvin be killed. The deputy pulled the trigger, Irvin said, but the gun misfired. After inspecting his gun, the deputy fired again and shot Irvin in the neck.

Powers said that he went to see McCall in the hospital and that the sheriff did have a bump on his head and was bleeding. “He looked pretty bumped up, so something happened to him.” The coroner’s inquest cleared McCall and even praised him.

Thurgood Marshall Takes The Case

In the second trial, Irvin was represented by future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who replaced Williams. This time, the change of venue was granted, although neighboring Marion County did not offer a significantly different political environment. The new trial attracted even more national attention and the international press began to cover the trial. The trial became a pawn in the Cold War as newspapers in the Soviet Union pointed to the trial as evidence that American blacks were not free.

There was new defense evidence raising questions about the case, but again, the jury just deliberated ninety minutes before finding Irvin guilty. The case was appealed, but in early 1954, the United States Supreme Court declined to hear it. Acting Governor Charley Johns rejected an appeal for clemency and scheduled Irvin’s execution. What saved Irvin was not the legal system, but the political system. Irvin was granted a last-minute stay and in November 1954, Johns was defeated for reelection by the more moderate LeRoy Collins. He asked for a report on the case and after questions were raised about the evidence, he commuted Irvin’s sentence to life in prison.

The decision was denounced in Lake County. And by the United States Attorney General McGrath, whose denunciation of Collins was publicized throughout the state. In 1962, Greenlee was paroled and Irvin was released in 1968. Greenlee moved to Tennessee after his release and never returned to Florida. Irvin initially moved to Miami, but returned to Lake County for a visit in 1970. He died there of a heart attack.

Willis McCall continued to be reelected by the voters despite charges of corruption and abuse. He was suspended from office by Governor Reubin Askew after a black prisoner was kicked to death. He resigned from office in 1973.

Courtesy of

An Apology in Lake County

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Sixty-eight years later, Florida lawmakers said they were “sorry” to the family members of the Groveland Boys, the four black men who were falsely accused of raping a woman in 1949.



From left, Sheriff Willis McCall, jailer Reuben Hatcher, Walter Irvin, Charles Greenlee, and Samuel Shepherd, at the Lake County Jail in Lake County, Florida, in 1949. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Visual Materials from the NAACP Records

This piece was reported through The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that covers the U.S. criminal-justice system.When Vivian Shepherd, an administrative secretary at East Ridge High School, left her Lake County, Florida home on the morning of April 18, she knew she’d be cutting it close. Tallahassee was a good three and a half hours away, but the long drive north would be worth it. Florida’s House of Representatives was scheduled to officially apologize for the “gross injustices” in the case of the Groveland Boys, and one of those “boys” was Samuel Shepherd—the uncle she’d never met—gunned down by Sheriff Willis McCall on the side of a dark Lake County road in 1951, 10 years before Vivian was born.

She made good time, and after finding a parking space near the Florida Capitol Complex in Tallahassee, she rushed toward the House Office Building. There was a line at the security entrance, and after passing through a metal detector, Shepherd, a diabetic, was feeling hypoglycemic and recognized that she needed to eat something. She picked up some yogurt in the cafeteria, quickly ate it, and then rushed back up to the fourth floor, where guards told her that the legislative session had already commenced. The doors could not be opened.

The rest of her family, Shepherd pleaded, was inside, sitting with the Irvins and Greenlees, the other families from the Groveland case who had also come to witness Florida’s historic apology. She’d been texting them just minutes before, she said. The guard was sorry. He told her she could fill out a form that would be taken inside the chamber to one of the co-sponsors of the bill, and perhaps the representative would send a staff member out for her. Vivian Shepherd took a deep breath, filled out the form, and handed it to a man she never saw again.

What the guards didn’t tell Shepherd was that she’d been trying to gain entry on the wrong floor; that the families of the Groveland Boys were one floor up, seated in the balcony, which was open to the public. So instead of being directed to the elevator, Vivian Shepherd waited hopelessly in the lobby. On a nearby television monitor, she could see Representative Bobby DuBose addressing the families. She strained to hear through the doors as the House voted unanimously, 117-0, to apologize to the families of the Groveland Boys. And she could hear the applause as the representatives rose from their seats to face the dozen or so family members.

“The State of Florida was wrong, and we’re sorry,” DuBose told them.The Irvins and the Greenlees soon emerged from the elevators and spotted Shepherd in the lobby. With tears that turned to sobs, the broken-hearted niece of Samuel Shepherd was enveloped by family hugs.

“I’d been waiting years for this day,” Shepherd said. “That was a moment in time that I was supposed to be there for. All that we’ve done…all that we’ve worked for…I’ll never get that moment back.”

It was not the first apology that Vivian Shepherd had missed.

*  *  *

During World War II, Vivian’s grandfather Henry Shepherd, the grandson of a Georgian slave, purchased 55 acres of swampland in Groveland, Florida, and spent the next few years enduring countless snakebites in his efforts to drain the property and make it something of value. Once he was finished, poor white farmers took advantage of the now desirable tracts of rich Florida soil and purchased the lots around Shepherd at bargain prices, leading to an unexpected breakdown in residential segregation in south Lake County.

Shepherd built a modest six-room house and maintained a small farm with help from three sons and three daughters, while his wife Ida Mae had “the best preserve cellar in the area.” Shepherd’s white neighbors tried to run him off his land. They knocked down his fences and allowed their cattle to graze on his land, destroying Shepherd’s crops just before harvest. An unsympathetic Sheriff Willis McCall arrived on the scene and told the farmer, “No nigger has a right to file any claim against a white man.”

Despite Henry and Ida Mae’s attempts to reason with their neighbors, the harassment and threats continued. They refused to leave. All of that changed on a summer night in 1949, when one of those neighbors—a 17-year-old white girl—told Lake County deputies and Sheriff McCall that she’d been raped by four black men.The Padgett family owned land that abutted the Shepherd farm, and when Norma Lee Tyson married Willie Padgett, the young couple moved into a small house on the Padgett property. Their marriage was rocky from the start. There were rumors around town that Willie would drink and sometimes become violent toward his wife. The couple separated after just six months; Norma moved back home with her parents who also lived down the road from the Shepherds.

Norma Padgett and her husband Willie after questioning by the state’s attorney in Tavares, Florida, in a newspaper clipping that appeared in the Statesville Daily Record, July 22, 1949. (NEA Telephoto, via Statesville Daily Record)

On July 17, Norma and Willie decided to try and patch things up. They picked up a bottle of whiskey and went out drinking and dancing at a local American Legion hall. By daybreak, Norma turned up outside a café in nearby Okahumpka, claiming that four black men had beaten up her husband and forced her into their car at gunpoint.

Within hours, Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvin, 22-year-old childhood friends and army buddies from Groveland, were arrested, taken into the basement beneath the Lake County jail, and severely beaten by deputies. Sixteen-year-old Charles Greenlee was also arrested and beaten, and a fourth suspect, Ernest Thomas, was hunted down by a posse and shot dead in a north Florida swamp.

Word spread that some young black men in Groveland had raped a white woman, and a heavily armed mob of Klansmen, accompanied by Willie Padgett and Norma’s father, Coy Tyson, showed up outside the Lake County jail. They demanded that Sheriff McCall release the prisoners to them for what was certain to be a lynching. McCall managed to hold the mob at bay, but they returned to Groveland and began burning black homes to the ground. Henry Shepherd’s house was reduced to ashes.Thousands of dollars worth of tools and farm equipment were stolen from a still-smoldering shed, and the Shepherds were forced to flee Lake County, holing up at a relative’s home in Orlando.

“They tell me my chickens and ducks are all gone,” Shepherd said at the time, reduced to mumbling that he wanted “no more trouble.”

But the worst of Henry Shepherd’s troubles were just beginning. In 1951, after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his son’s guilty verdict, calling the trial and its surrounding atmosphere “one of the worst menaces to American justice,” McCall decided to personally transport the defendants from Raiford prison back to Lake County for the retrial. Turning down a dark clay road, McCall stopped his car, pulled his gun, and executed Samuel Shepherd. Walter Irvin, handcuffed to his best friend, was shot three times, but he survived to tell the FBI a story of cold blooded murder—a version of events that the FBI later corroborated in its investigation, contradicting McCall’s claim that he was attacked during an inexplicable escape attempt.

Samuel Shepherd while he was in the U.S. Army Air Corps, circa 1948. Shepherd was gunned down by Sheriff Willis McCall in Lake County, Florida, in 1951. (Courtesy of the Shepherd family)

Yet despite the FBI’s forensic evidence of murder and attempted murder, a Lake County judge refused to impanel a grand jury, and a U.S. Attorney in Tampa was unmoved to investigate the sheriff. Walter Irvin was given a few weeks to recover from his gunshot wounds so that he could once again stand trial for the rape of Norma Padgett.

Henry Shepherd’s eldest son, James, a highly skilled auto mechanic in Groveland, was married to Walter Irvin’s sister, Henrietta. James Shepherd attended the retrial and was standing with Walter’s mother when his attorney, Thurgood Marshall, informed them of a deal proposed by a representative of Governor LeRoy Collins: If Walter Irvin pleaded guilty to rape, the state would agree to spare his life. Marshall, convinced that the jury would once again convict, and convinced that the judge would once again sentence his client to death, urged Irvin to accept the plea. Better to be alive, the civil-rights attorney reasoned, and they could wait until the case quieted down before attempting to secure Irvin’s release from prison.With James Shepherd at his side, Irvin considered the offer. Then he’d made up his mind. He would not lie. He did not rape Norma Padgett and he wasn’t going to say he did, even if the State of Florida agreed to spare him from the electric chair. And just as Marshall expected, Irvin was once again convicted by 12 white jurors and sentenced to death.

This time, however, the nation was watching. Collins would go on to commute Irvin’s sentence to life in prison, saying, “My conscience told me it was a bad case, badly handled, badly tried.” His own investigation helped him conclude that the evidence did not clearly establish the Groveland Boys’ guilt. Collins was aided in his decision by an extraordinary letter he’d received from the prosecutor, Jesse Hunter—a staunch segregationist—who informed the governor that he was no longer convinced that Irvin had raped Norma Padgett.

It would be another 62 years before the Florida House of Representatives passed a bill formally apologizing to the Groveland families—an act that was passed one week later, unanimously again, in the Florida Senate. The resolution also calls on Governor Rick Scott and his Cabinet to perform an expedited clemency review of the cases and grand full pardons. Several members of the Tyson and Padgett families were upset to learn of Florida’s apologies last month and took to social media to express their dismay. “If the state wants to apologize for their treatment during and after their apprehension fine,” one family member wrote. “But exonerate them of their crime no.”*  *  *

James Shepherd eventually did work his way back from Orlando to Lake County, but he knew he could never again live in Groveland. Instead he purchased a small home just a few miles down the road from the old family farm in the adjacent city of Clermont, and he began to raise a family with his second wife, Alene. They had two daughters, Vivian and Erma, and lived peacefully there for many years. In 1998, James’s health was failing. Complications from his diabetes had resulted in a few amputated toes, hands that had become increasingly numb, and a weakening heart. Throughout that summer, old friends arrived at the Shepherd home to pay respects to the trusty mechanic and longtime Lake County family man.

Samuel Shepherd’s brother, James Shepherd, seen here, was visited in 1998 by Norma Tyson, who had dropped the Padgett name. At that time, she told him that the rape of which she had accused four men never happened. (Courtesy of the Shepherd family)

Vivian Shepherd was living in Gainesville in 1998 when she received a Monday night telephone call from her mother. They chatted briefly about James’s health. Then, Alene said something curious.

“That lady came to the house yesterday,” she told Vivian.“What lady?” Vivian asked.

“You know,” Alene said. “From Groveland.”

Norma Padgett had not spoken publicly about the case she’d been at the center of since 1949, when she was admonished for telling a reporter from the St. Petersburg Times a few details that didn’t exactly square with her original trial testimony. She also admitted to the reporter that her father didn’t have much confidence in her testifying in court; he’d even bet a man that she’d “mess up” on the witness stand. Norma added that she didn’t much care for that “nigger lawyer” defending the Groveland Boys.

When the explosive three-part story was published in the spring of 1950, both McCall and the prosecutor, Jesse Hunter were livid. Norma was sternly warned to never again discuss the case. To this day, she has not spoken to any journalists, nor made any public statements. But according to the Shepherds, she did not remain completely silent.

Norma stayed married to Willie Padgett through both of the Groveland trials. Observers assumed it was for appearances’ sake in court—to present the image of a happy young farm couple whose lives were shattered by four black savages. The couple did have children together, but their marriage was anything but bliss. For Willie Padgett proved Norma’s daddy right about one thing. He was trouble.

In July 1952, Willie was arrested in Lake County, charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor, and sentenced to five months in jail. After a felony sexual assault charge in Orlando, he was in and out of jail on charges from fraud, to vehicle theft, to a sex offense with another minor in Miami.

Norma dropped the Padgett name, the couple divorced in 1958, and she remarried to another Lake County man a few years later.

Sam Shepherd in his coffin in November 1951. Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund paid for his funeral. (Courtesy of the Shepherd family)

By 1998, Willie was dead, as was Norma’s second husband (whose surname she uses today), and the 66-year-old widow was still living in Groveland. In the summer of that year, Alene Shepherd called her daughter, Vivian, to tell her the story of the white woman who showed up at the Shepherd home in Clermont.

Norma rang the doorbell, Vivian recounted. Alene told her that she could see a man waiting by his car on the street.

“May I see James Shepherd?” Norma asked.

James Shepherd slowly limped to the door and opened it for Norma. Alene gave them privacy and the two former Groveland neighbors sat on the interior porch “for about five minutes,” she recounted to her daughter.

When the two were done speaking, James came stoically back into the living room. Norma and the man drove away.

“What was that about?” Alene asked.

“That was Norma,” James said. He told his wife that she’d come to talk about his brother, Sam. And about the rape.

“What did she say?” Alene asked.

“She said it never happened.”

Driven from Groveland, the Shepherd family had lost their house and farm in what Florida legislators described as the state’s “dark times” of racism. The swamp acreage that Henry Shepherd had painstakingly drained and cultivated eventually came into the possession of one of Norma’s sons. For the Shepherds, there was no going back to Groveland anyway. Samuel had been dead nearly 50 years, and despite James’s reputation as a man of character and faith, the Shepherd name remained tainted in Lake County; Willis McCall’s rendition of the Groveland story became the version that endured. There were venomous, shameful words that followed the Shepherd nieces and nephews through their school years and beyond—smears that resonated for decades.

Weeks from his last moments on earth, when his heart would ultimately fail him, James Shepherd said he had heard Norma concede what he’d known all along.“She apologized,” James told his wife.

As Alene Shepherd described to her daughters the meeting between James and Norma, neither Vivian nor Erma doubted their parents for even a second. “It happened,” Vivian said.

“We’re Christians,” Erma added, noting that her father made sure the family never missed service at Clermont’s New Jacobs Missionary Baptist Church. James Shepherd never sought “closure” to the family ruin he’d endured in Groveland a half century before, nor had he ever attempted to come to terms with his tragic past. The past he simply buried. The pain was too great, and like so many victims of racial terror and brutality in the Jim Crow South, the Shepherds remained silent, not wanting to poison their own children’s hearts with stories of hatred. “My father did not carry prejudice,” Erma said. “He never held bitterness.”

Norma’s visit was unsolicited and unexpected, but James Shepherd welcomed her into his Lake County home and listened solemnly to the woman’s plea for forgiveness.

Vivian Shepherd didn’t need to ask her mother what happened next. Despite what the doctors had said, she knew there was still strength in James Shepherd’s heart.

“My father accepted the apology,” Vivian said.

*  *  *

Several attempts were made, through previously cooperative family members, to contact Norma for a comment on the State of Florida’s apologies to the families of the Groveland Boys, as well as on the Shepherds’ story of her visit to their home in Clermont. Contact was eventually made with a close relative who emphatically made it clear that the family would have no comment.

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Behind the Search for an Apology in the Infamous 1949 ‘Groveland Boys’ Case

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By Michael Stone

May 23, 2016
Thurgood Marshall sits behind his desk in his office at the Federal Courthouse, Washington, DC. in 1965

Thurgood Marshall sits behind his desk in his office at the Federal Courthouse, Washington, DC. in 1965 Sam Falk—Getty Images

The story of the Groveland Boys might not surprise anyone familiar with the miscarriages of justice that sometimes marked race relations in the early 20th century.

The case started in 1949, when four black men were accused of raping a white woman outside Groveland, Fla. One was killed by a mob a few days later, and the other three were tried and convicted. But thanks to Thurgood Marshall pursuing the case when he was executive director of the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Supreme Court ordered a retrial.

Seven months after the Supreme Court decision, one of the men was killed and another injured in a shooting by the sheriff and a deputy from Lake County, where Groveland is located. The surviving two were convicted again, with one serving 19 years in jail and dying in 1970, two years after being released; the other was released in 1962 after 12 serving years and died in 2012.

Many believe the Groveland Boys were innocent, and today, city and county governments, the Florida Senate and concerned citizens are pushing for the state to apologize, exonerate and pardon the four.

In light of that effort, Gilbert King — author of the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America, which is being made into a movie — spoke to TIME about why the Groveland Boys case still matters today.

In the history of injustices in the U.S., what makes this case stand out?

What really makes this case stand out is it’s kind of like a To Kill a Mockingbird-type case or a Scottsboro Boys-type case, where you have these really explosive allegations, and then the dynamic in the community just gets a little out of control, seeking vengeance. So there’s a near lynching and then really a travesty of justice that follows, and ultimately, the Supreme Court overturned these verdicts. And then you had a sheriff in this Lake County that sort of took it upon himself to be the judge and jury.

So much has changed in terms of racial equality between 1949 and today. Describe Groveland and the surrounding area at the time.

You had these very powerful citrus people who really wanted a very strong sheriff in place to make sure that labor was kept in line, to make sure there was no organizing and union activity. So they really depended on a very strong sheriff to keep blacks in line [because they were] the labor in this community.

Almost seven decades have passed between then and now. Why does this case matter today?

Well, if you look back at this case, the doctor who examined the alleged victim in this case came up with a report that found no medical evidence to support her claims. And so the prosecution just hid [the doctor] from the defense. This witness was never able to testify, and the defense tried to subpoena him. But the judge overruled, saying it was irrelevant [because] we already have her word on what had happened to her. We don’t need medical evidence. … And so it’s still relevant because the families have never gotten closure on this. … And I don’t even know if closure’s the right word, but they do want some kind of exoneration or official pardon, posthumous pardon, on behalf of their family members.

How certain are we that at least some of them are innocent?

I make that case in my book, I think, pretty convincingly. I’ve included the medical report that we never saw in the trial [and] the massive amounts of perjury that happened in this trial. … I’m absolutely convinced there’s no rape that took place. I studied this for many years.

Why is the state being targeted today for an apology, exoneration and pardons of the two who were later convicted, Walter Irvin and Charles Greenlee?

You have to do what’s called a posthumous pardon, and I think there’s only been one in the state of Florida. And that was for Jim Morrison of The Doors, believe it or not. … So this one’s a little more serious. I think [to the people leading the effort for an apology], the truth is sort of obvious, and they want this corrected because a lot of the Groveland families still live in Groveland or in Lake County. Before they pass on, they want to see justice done, and the only form of justice they can possibly get is a posthumous pardon or exoneration.

Will the apology, exoneration and pardons come eventually?

My thinking is it will happen. Eventually this will happen. … It still took eight decades to officially clear the Scottsboro boys. … Someone is going to have the courage or the fortitude to do what’s right, and ultimately, this will happen just like it happened with the Scottsboro boys. It’s just a matter of time.

Did we touch on everything that’s relevant now, or was there something that we missed?

I think it could be complicated because the alleged victim in this case is still alive. … I made an attempt [to talk with her] towards the end of the writing of my book. I went down, I found her in Georgia [but she has since moved back to Groveland], and I stood outside her door and had a conversation trying to persuade her to talk about this. And her message to me was: Let sleeping dogs lie.

Courtesy of

Gilbert King – Devil in the Grove

Gilbert King, author of “Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America,” was invited to speak at the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle Roundtable for Week Two as soon as the theme of the week, ‘Boys Will Be Boys, Then Men,’ was chosen. King was the winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-fiction and was shirt-listed for The Chautauqua Prize in 2014.