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Sheriff Willis McCall. (PHOTO: COURTESY OF HARPER PERENNIAL)

The Most Dangerous Place to Be Black

• August 07, 2013 • 6:00 AM

Sheriff Willis McCall. (PHOTO: COURTESY OF HARPER PERENNIAL)

For Florida, being at the center of a maelstrom about race and justice for black Americans is nothing new. Especially if you ever had a run-in with Lake County’s brutal seven-term sheriff, Willis McCall.

“[I]t’s just harder for black defendants to assert stand-your-ground defense if the victim is white, and easier for whites to raise a stand-your-ground defense if the victims are black,” says Darren Hutchinson, a law professor and civil rights law expert at the University of Florida in Gainesville. “The bottom line is that it’s really easy for juries to accept that whites had to defend themselves against persons of color.” —Christian Science Monitor, August 6, 2013

* * *

Sixty years before George Zimmerman fired his single shot in Sanford, the people of central Florida lived through one of the most suspicious claims of self-defense in American history. The incident on November 6, 1951, prompted outrage and protest across the country—as well as from the podium at the United Nations, where the Soviet foreign minister Andrei Vishinsky brandished a newspaper with headlines and gruesome photos of two black men who had been shot by a Florida sheriff, as he chided, “This is what human rights means in the United States! This is the American way of life!”

Eight months earlier Thurgood Marshall and lawyers from the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund had been able to convince the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a Florida court verdict that had sentenced to death two of three young black men between the ages of 16 and 22, known as the Groveland Boys, in the alleged rape of a white 17-year-old farm girl that whipped up a frenzy of mob violence against the local African-American community. It was widely thought that the accusations were trumped up in order to rid Lake County of a handful of “uppity” blacks who were not dependent on day work in the citrus groves. (Ernest Thomas was hunted down and killed by a posse, while 16 year-old Charles Greenlee was given mercy and sentenced to life on a chain gang.)

The Groveland case, if up to the Florida justice system of the time, would have ended with the quick and quiet executions of the convicted black youths, and then it would have disappeared, as did so many capital cases in the Jim Crow South. But, unlike the Trayvon Martin shooting in late February 2012, something extraordinary occurred in Lake County, Florida, on that rainy night in November 1951. Like a Shakespearian ghost, a young man, presumed to be dead, rose from a ditch to tell a tale of murder.

Willis McCall continued to serve another 21 years as sheriff. In 1972, he was forced to stand trial for kicking to death a black, mentally retarded prisoner who’d been brought into his jail on a minor traffic offense.

After the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the verdict, Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall volunteered to transport the two young defendants, Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvin, from the Florida State Prison back to court for the retrial. McCall, it should be known, was revolted by the high court decision. The two young men didn’t make it back to the town of Tavares, Florida, for court that night. McCall turned down a dark, clay road where, he claimed, the two handcuffed prisoners jumped him in an escape attempt. In self-defense, McCall insisted, he’d been forced to shoot the two assailants.

Samuel Shepherd was killed instantly. Cuffed to his now dead best friend, Walter Irvin took two gunshot wounds to the chest and collapsed beside Shepherd. But Irvin’s evening of horror wasn’t over yet. Summoned to the scene by Sheriff McCall, Deputy James Yates arrived and shined his flashlight down on Irvin. “This nigger is not dead,” Yates mumbled. Then he fired what was supposed to be the coup de grace: a .38 caliber bullet straight through Irvin’s neck.

Miraculously, Walter Irvin survived. While he lay on the roadside, McCall and Yates moved into the glare of the sheriff’s Oldsmobile headlights. They ripped at McCall’s clothes, rumpled his Stetson, and struck a blow to his head that produced a trickle of blood. Thus the two men concocted, and substantiated, their story of an attempted escape.

Then they summoned witnesses to the scene. It was not until a photographer’s flash fired 15 minutes later that a prosecutor on the scene noticed that Walter Irvin was still alive.

From his hospital bed the next morning, Irvin offered Thurgood Marshall and the FBI a version of events very different from McCall’s. Irvin claimed that the sheriff had shot him and his friend Samuel in cold-blooded murder.

But Irvin was black and convicted of rape in the eyes of the state. Next to the testimony of the popular sheriff, Irvin’s version carried little weight. A coroner’s jury made up mostly of McCall’s friends swiftly cleared the sheriff of any wrongdoing, concluding that he had indeed acted in self-defense. Judge Truman Futch, the Groveland trial judge, declined to impanel a grand jury on the grounds that the coroner’s jury had proved to be so thorough there was no need for a grand jury investigation.

FBI agents—men from the South who weren’t necessarily sympathetic to civil rights cases—were nonetheless aghast. They went back to the crime scene and dug into the soil beneath Walter Irvin’s spilled blood. The FBI offered to make their forensic evidence, which supported Irvin’s version of the shootings, available to prosecutors in order to secure indictments against McCall and Yates. But they were rebuffed by Judge Futch. So the incriminating evidence remained sealed in FBI files, hidden from Thurgood Marshall and his NAACP attorneys. Sheriff McCall, with the help of powerful friends in Florida and a supportive public that believed a trial would be a waste of time and money, had escaped yet another civil rights investigation.

Following Trayvon Martin’s death in 2012, NAACP organizers and hundreds of protestors marched in Sanford to demand the arrest of George Zimmerman. Such demonstrations would have been unimaginable in Lake County in 1951. For years citrus pickers had attempted to organize for higher wages and better working conditions, only to see their efforts thwarted with violence and arrests by Sheriff McCall and his deputies. If the message against agitation wasn’t clear enough to activists, white supremacists resorted to more extreme measures. Harry T. Moore, an indefatigable NAACP executive whom Marshall had tasked to a campaign protesting McCall’s shooting of the Groveland Boys, was killed with his wife, Henrietta, on Christmas night 1951, when a bomb exploded beneath the bedroom of their house. The couple, who had celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary that same night, died in Sanford, a few miles from where Trayvon Martin drew his last breath. More than a decade before the death of Medgar Evers, Harry T. Moore became the first leader of the modern civil rights movement to be assassinated in the United States.

If there is a lesson to be drawn from Thurgood Marshall’s fight for equality in the Jim Crow South in the years before he became the nation’s first black Supreme Court Justice, it is that Marshall saw criminal trials and their verdicts as snapshots on a timeline ever evolving toward equal justice in the courts. The scope of these trials was often narrow, and the verdicts did not always reveal unadulterated truth or deliver immediate justice. But Marshall made sure always to hold a bright light on the laws of the land by selecting cases that could create precedent in higher appellate courts. There, verdicts could be overturned, and public opinion, or outcry, might lead to legislative changes. More importantly, truth might alter the biases of a nation’s hearts and minds.

Four months after he was shot by Sheriff McCall and Deputy Yates, Walter Irvin was again convicted and sentenced to death at retrial. Thurgood Marshall was undeterred. He worked closely with the media to promote travel and citrus boycotts in Florida. (“Notice Negro blood on your grapefruit?” one newspaper editorial inquired.) He organized massive letter-writing campaigns to Governor LeRoy Collins. He urged clergy from around the country to demand justice for Walter Irvin. Marshall’s multi-pronged attack soon began to convince Collins that Florida’s three sturdy legs—tourism, industry, agriculture—might wobble if the flow of northern money into the state should wane due to continuing negative media coverage and political pressure. Despite the fact that Walter Irvin had been found guilty by two separate juries and had been twice sentenced to death, Collins conducted his own investigation into the rape allegations and the conduct of Sheriff McCall. In December 1955, the governor commuted Irvin’s death sentence to life imprisonment. Irvin was eventually paroled in 1968. (He was found dead in a car one year later when he returned to Lake County for a relative’s funeral.)

To the surprise of many, there was no more dangerous place for blacks than Florida during Jim Crow. In their comprehensive work, A Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynchings, 1882-1930, Stewart E. Tolnay and E.M. Beck show that blacks in Florida had a much greater chance of being lynched than in any other state in the South, with 79.8 lynchings per 100,000 blacks. (Mississippi was a distant second with 52.8.)

The NAACP was instrumental in the stemming of violence against blacks before and after World War II, and Thurgood Marshall risked his own life to ensure that blacks received equal justice in the courts, and that the verdicts of coroners’ juries or decisions by local law enforcement agencies in the South were not the last word. Were it not for protests by NAACP organizers that led to extensive media coverage and the public outcry across the nation, George Zimmerman may never have stood trial for killing an unarmed black youth, where the facts of his case could be tested in a court of law, win or lose.

Willis McCall had very little protest or opposition to contend with in 1951. After he shot Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvin, McCall continued to serve another 21 years. In 1972, he was forced to stand trial for kicking to death a black, mentally retarded prisoner who’d been brought into his jail on a minor traffic offense. The case (McCall was eventually acquitted), and his suspension from office by Governor Reubin Askew, prevented him from campaigning at his usual pace. Still, McCall only narrowly lost in his bid for an eighth consecutive term as sheriff of Lake County.

Gilbert King
Gilbert King is the author of Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2013. King is originally from Schenectady, New York. He has written about Supreme Court history and the death penalty for the New York Times and the Washington Post, and he is a featured contributor to Smithsonian magazine’s history blog, Past Imperfect. His book, The Execution of Willie Francis was published in 2008. He lives in New York City with his wife, two daughters, and a French Bulldog named Louis.

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