Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall, far left, and an unidentified man stand next to Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Charles Greenlee. (Courtesy of the Florida Memory Project)
Gilbert King wrote a book that changed many people’s lives, and it happened almost by accident.
More than a decade ago, King was researching a book about U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall’s days as director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. He came across documents about a case in the tiny Central Florida town of Groveland.
“I’d never heard of it,” King says. “But in 1949 the lawyers were writing Marshall these desperate letters and telegrams saying Florida is the most dangerous place we’ve ever been. Please help us.”
“I thought, what on earth was going on in Florida?”
His quest to answer that question led to his 2012 book, Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America. That led to a Pulitzer Prize for King in 2013, which led to a series of events culminating this month in Tallahassee, when Florida’s Clemency Board voted to pardon four black men unjustly accused of rape 70 years ago in Lake County.
King, 56, was in the hearing room when the vote came down. He testified briefly. “I said, these Groveland Boys were powerless back in the day against a brutal sheriff and a corrupt prosecutor. They had no chance.”
The accused — Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Ernest Thomas — are dead, but their families have long hoped to clear their names. King’s book played a large part in giving them a chance.
Raised in New York, King attended the University of South Florida but didn’t graduate: “So close!” he says. “Two math credits. But a couple of years ago they gave me an honorary doctor of letters.”
King worked as a photographer for top magazines and book publishers before switching to writing. His nonfiction books have focused on the intersections between race and the American legal system; the most recent, published in 2018, is Beneath a Ruthless Sun: A True Story of Violence, Race, and Justice Lost and Found. Like Devil in the Grove, it’s set in Lake County, recounting more of the racist reign of terror of that community’s longtime sheriff, Willis McCall. King notes that the two cases described in those books both ended up before the U.S. Supreme Court.
King talked to the Times by phone from Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lives with his family.
What first got you interested in the Groveland Four?
I was writing this book called The Execution of Willie Francis. I was going through records from two white lawyers in Louisiana who were working on a death penalty case, and there were all these letters from Thurgood Marshall giving them advice. I knew Marshall was involved in civil rights and voting rights and housing cases, but I didn’t know he was involved in death penalty cases. So when I was back in Washington I was going through files there and found one file on Groveland.
I found very little in the files about the case, but enough to see it was like the Scottsboro Boys on steroids. There were false accusations and arrests of these young black men, but then the sheriff starts killing the defendants, and the Klan kills Harry T. Moore.
What was Moore’s connection to the Groveland case?
He was one of those people who was so important to civil rights and Florida history, but a lot of people don’t know about him. He was the executive secretary of the NAACP in Florida. He had worked with Marshall before on schools and on a lynching case. When Marshall got involved in Groveland, he knew exactly who he needed. Moore’s role was basically to keep McCall’s actions in the news. Marshall was using him as a kind of PR person.
So the assassination of Moore and his wife, Harriette — killed when a bomb exploded under their home in Mims on Christmas night of 1951 — was related to Groveland?
The Klan had several reasons, but the FBI was convinced the Groveland case was the final straw. They never solved (the murders). They had suspects, but the attorney general pulled the plug.
Devil in the Grove revealed information from FBI files and other sources that had not been made public before. How did you get those documents?
The FBI files on this case were heavily redacted, just this sea of black ink. When I put in my Freedom of Information Act request, I’d been waiting and waiting, and then they said, well, 60 years have passed since this happened, so the files aren’t secret anymore. They released all the files without redaction. It was just amazing. The timing was really lucky for me.
In April of 1951, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the convictions of Irvin and Shepherd. In November of that year, while driving them to their retrial, Sheriff Willis McCall pulled over and shot both prisoners, Shepherd fatally, claiming they tried to escape. What did you find about that in the FBI files?
For the McCall shooting, they had the pure forensic evidence — proof that it was murder and attempted murder — but that had been quashed.
What about evidence related to Norma Padgett, the 17-year-old white woman who accused the four of raping her?
According to the records, she was examined a few hours later by a white doctor in Leesburg. So McCall paid him a visit and said, what are you going to put in the report? He said, I don’t know. There was no evidence of rape, but that report was never released to the defense. Thurgood Marshall tried to subpoena the report and didn’t get it.
Devil in the Grove is making news now, but what did it take for that to happen?
This book was rejected 38 times by various publishers. My book on Willie Francis didn’t cause much of a stir, and this was another civil rights book, kind of dark. Publishers weren’t interested.
It took a lot of effort to get it published. Then, one year later, I got a letter from my publisher that it hadn’t done so well, so they were going to remainder it. But they said I could buy copies at a greatly reduced price.
The very next day, I was playing golf with an old friend. We were lamenting our life choices. I said, I think I’m done. I might not get to write another book. We were just a couple of sad sacks walking along the golf course.
Then I got a two-word text: “Dude, Pulitzer.”
The Pulitzer Prize brought the book, and the case, a lot more attention, leading to a petition to pardon the men. Who started that effort?
Josh Venkataranan was a student at the University of Florida who was studying Devil in the Grove in his history class. He became motivated to do something, so he visited the families and started this petition. It had like 8,000 names at one point, I don’t know how many eventually. He kept calling his representative and his senator. The momentum kept building.
What happened in the Legislature?
A representative from (Pinellas County), Chris Sprowls, read it. He was on the Judiciary Committee, and he bought the book for all the members and told them, you’ve got to read this. It became a kind of competition to see which side could get the most readers. That led to the (unanimous) vote and the apology (in 2017).
Devil in the Grove tells a riveting story, and Hollywood is interested. Plans for a movie stalled a while ago, but are they back on track?
I met in Los Angeles a couple of months ago with the producers and they assured me they would shoot it in 2019. Switching from Lionsgate to Amazon meant they wanted a new script. Now they say they want it to be more like the book and have more about Thurgood Marshall, which is great. I don’t know anything about actors, but I do know the director is still Anton Corbijn (A Most Wanted Man).
Now is the time to do it. I can see an ending in that hearing room in Tallahassee, one of those, “And then, in 2019 …”
What are you working on next? And are you done with Lake County?
I have a couple of ideas that might be good books. I’m working on a TV series, although I don’t know what I’m doing.
Lake County, I say I’m done. But there was this one Lake County story I didn’t get into Beneath a Ruthless Sun, this killer called “Mean” Marie Dean Arrington, in the late 1960s. She showed up to kill a leading defense attorney because she didn’t like the way he handled her sons’ cases. He wasn’t there, so she grabbed his secretary and stabbed her to death. Later she escaped from jail and was threatening all these judges and cops and prosecutors, leaving them voodoo dolls and notes, “You’re next, you’re next, you’re next.”
Even Willis McCall was afraid of her.
Contact Colette Bancroft at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.