This is an excerpt of the chapter entitled "The Groveland Four":
The Groveland Four
“The Groveland Four “was the quintessential example of legal lynching. Lynching had been used as a way to maintain the social structure but also to terrorize its African American citizens. The federal government had indicated that it was no longer simply going to turn a blind eye to these type of outrages. You begin to see whites using the justice system to achieve the same means. They can count on prosecutors, the jury, the judges to do the work of the mob, and guarantee that the people who are accused are going to lose their lives.” (PBS) (The Groveland Four, n.d.)
African Americans in the late 1940s in Lake County, FL, were coerced, beaten/forced by local law enforcement to work in the orange groves. In the post-Reconstruction period in the South, the police force was used to drum up minor offenses to feed the peonage system or “new slavery” of the South.
The lingering peonage-like system in Lake County fueled the local economy. The tragic story of the “Groveland Four” is a story that garnered worldwide attention in the early 1950s. It starts with Sammy Shepherd and Walter Irvin, two veterans of WWII, who had refused to return to work in the orange groves after the war. Like many returning African American veterans of WWII, they’d returned to the South with new attitudes and ideas about how they should be able to live. Because of these attitudes, these men became the target of the local sheriff, Willis McCall.
Enter Norma and Willie Padgett. They were a young white couple in a troubled marriage. Willie had beaten Norma. They’d separated and reunited. They had car trouble one night and waved down two black men, Shepherd and Irvin, for assistance. Shepherd was a mechanic and got their vehicle started. Norma offered the black men a drink of alcohol, perhaps as a way of saying thank you. Somehow Willie gets upset, calls Sam a name and a scuffle ensues in which Willie gets knocked unconscious. The men offer to take Norma somewhere and drop her off, which they did.
The story that Norma and Willie would tell the local deputy, however, would eventually shake the state of Florida, the nation, spark KKK riots and involve the Supreme Court and cost two men their lives. Norma and Willie said that four black men had attacked them, knocked Willie out, and raped Norma.
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