The men burst into the house and dragged out the 15-year-old boy as his mother screamed for help. The sheriff’s men bound the boy’s hands and feet, loaded him into their car and stopped at the lumber mill to grab the boy’s father. They drove the father and son to the banks of the Suwannee River.
The boy was told his choice was to jump into the raging river or be shot in the head. Hysterical, he collapsed backward into the deep water, and was never seen again. The father, under threat from the authorities, signed a document supporting the sheriff’s account of events. The boy’s mother packed up their belongings, and they left town the next day.
Willie James Howard’s “crime” was writing a Christmas card to a white girl in the small town of Live Oak, Fla., saying he liked her. She showed the letter to her father, and he summoned the goon squad. None of the killers was ever brought to justice.
That was America, 1944. It was not an anomalous atrocity, nor an unusual crime in Florida or throughout the South. Florida had more registered Ku Klux Klansmen than any other state, and more lynchings.
It is recent history. We forget, we really do, that just decades ago, there were mob killings throughout the South. The last known lynching was in 1981, in Mobile, Ala., where several Klan members beat and hanged a 20-year-old black man. From the years after the Civil War until the late 1960s, some 3,500 African-Americans were lynched.
Some of the victims of racial violence, particularly in the South, were American veterans who had fought in World War II, defending this country, the Constitution and the American way of life. I am thinking about those soldiers as we celebrate Memorial Day, and I’m struck by the resilience of all fighters for racial and social justice who witnessed the hate crimes and lynchings of the 20th century. How do they keep the faith?
Here’s a suggestion for Memorial Day 2018: March in a Memorial Day parade. Honor our soldiers, and the families that defended America.
But do something else this holiday weekend: Read Gilbert King’s “Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys and the Dawn of a New America.” The book won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 2013.
King, an amateur historian, wrote a vivid account of the life of Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American Supreme Court justice. In his biography, the author traces Marshall’s career from his early days, traveling through the South in search of small-town justice, to his landmark argument before the Supreme Court in 1954. That case, which came to be known as Brown vs. Board of Education, finally guaranteed integrated schools, at least on paper.
The story of young Willie James Howard is told in “Devil in the Grove,” along with other accounts of night riders and Klansmen dragging boys and men from their beds and hanging them in their own front yards.
On the road to becoming a Supreme Court justice, Marshall took on dozens of bias cases, lynching cases and class-action suits. One of the most notorious and disturbing was the Groveland Boys case, in which a young white woman falsely accused four black youths of kidnapping and raping her in Lake City, Fla.
A posse killed one suspect immediately. Two others were shot and killed years later, “trying to escape.” One was sentenced to death but was eventually paroled.
The alleged rape was charged in 1948. Last year, 69 years later, all four young men were “posthumously exonerated” by the state of Florida.
We live now in the days of new threats to minorities and newcomers. We fear for the integrity of our Bill of Rights, and the social and legal blueprint that is the U.S. Constitution. We have a president who speaks to the darkest side of his supporters in racist code and “dog whistles.”
Read “Devil in the Grove.” Discover all over again how precious our American way of life is, and how much richer it becomes with new voices and diverse cultures blending in with the old.
Read the book and commemorate Memorial Day, honoring the men and women who died for our freedom. We get lost in big words like “freedom.” Our mothers and fathers and brothers fought under appalling conditions to preserve a way of life that respects the civil rights of all citizens. They fought, and many died, to defend our government and its leaders.
Now, in 2018, emerging stories of government leaders using power and position for personal gain tarnish the memory of our soldiers. A president who serves just part of the people serves none of them well.
Read the book. As the Christian Science Monitor said in its review, “The story of Thurgood Marshall and his Groveland Boys reminds us that man’s capacity for evil may be deep, but so is his capacity for change.”
Copyright 2018 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.