February ends this week and another Black History Month has passed.
Many Americans yawn at the idea of concentrating on any history, especially that of African Americans. They think of Black History Month as an overextended pseudo holiday created not long ago to promote black culture or concentrate on the oppression of slavery.
The idea of highlighting the achievements and history of black Americans started in 1926 as simply Black History Week. Blacks had made some progress but realized their role in American history was largely ignored.
The civil rights movement changed many things and a new generation of black Americans wanted to expand on the idea of revealing the truth about black history. Students at Kent State University in Ohio started Black History Month in 1970. The celebration at Kent State came three months before anti-war riots on campus led to the shooting deaths of four students, all white.
Black history is stained with violence and injustice long after slavery ended. Last week, the country was reminded of how the legal system failed four young black men in Florida 70 years ago.
Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Earnest Thomas were known as the Groveland Four, accused of raping a 17-year-old white woman, Norma Padgett, after they beat her husband, Willie, while the couple was stranded with their vehicle breaking down along a rural road in Lake County, Florida.
Naturally, the rape of a white married woman by black men led to mob violence. Lynching of black men have resulted for simply showing “disrespect” to women of the South – Emmet Till, a teenager from Chicago, merely whistled at a white woman and later died a horrible death for that transgression.
Black families were left homeless from white-led riots that burned down neighborhoods plus black-owned businesses in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Rosewood, Florida, and even Springfield, Illinois, during the last century. Similar attacks were made by white mobs against blacks in Groveland that summer. The National Guard was called in to quell the violence.
Earnest Thomas fled when he learned the sheriff and a posse were hunting for him. He was discovered in a wooded area and before he could surrender, he was shot dead. His body was later riddled with more than 400 slugs as if the posse used his corpse for sickening target practice, based on Gilbert King’s book, “Devil in the Grove,” which won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction.
So-called confessions were forced out of the other three Groveland suspects. After several strikes by a welder’s hose a suspect is more likely to admit to any crime, especially when he is getting hit in the face. In recent years, corrupt law officers have used tasers and other technical refinements to draw out confessions.
Thurgood Marshall, who would argue the case of Brown vs Board of Education and later became the first black appointed to the Supreme Court, tried to defend the Groveland suspects. He would face death threats in Florida. One of his associates with the National Association of Colored People would be killed in the South.
Greenlee, Shepherd and Irvin faced the electric chair when convicted. Sheriff Willis V. McCall, who ruled Groveland with wanton violence and had a gambling operation on the side, tried to carry out executions when transporting Shepherd and Irvin, both World War II veterans, after Marshall gained retrials through the Supreme Court. McCall stopped the squad car, ordered the prisoners out and shot them with his pistol. Shepherd died, while Irvin survived after being taken to a hospital.
McCall claimed the prisoners tried to attack him and escape. Over the years, many black men under custody were killed with the words on the officer’s report “shot while trying to escape.” McCall was never tried for the shootings. He did face a trial in 1972 for violence against a black prisoner but he was acquitted by an all-white jury. Only whites served on the juries when the Groveland Four were tried.
Irvin received the death penalty. His sentence was later commuted to life in prison, and he was paroled in 1968, but died a year later. Greenlee was paroled in 1962 and died in 2012.
The Groveland defendants are now gone, but their families are seeking exonerations to clear their names of a crime that they did not commit. Last year, the Florida governor issued posthumous pardons to the four, convinced they were wrongly convicted.
There is one person still alive who was there on the rural road that summer night in 1949. She’s Norma Padgett, now in her late eighties. She is a determined lady and testified last year that the four black men should not be pardoned because “they did it.” Padgett is adamant even though trial records and revelations of manufactured evidence from 70 years ago bring her claim into question.
This is the challenge to gaining truth and justice from the dark days of Jim Crow. Witnesses die, evidence disappears and those remaining refuse to change their stories that defy the facts.
So that is why Black History Month is about more than George Washington Carver’s diligent research with the peanut, Louis Armstrong’s timeless musical artistry or the courage of Jackie Robinson to take the field with the Brooklyn Dodgers. It is a time for gaining justice, too.