Seventy-two years after four Black men were accused of raping a white woman in Florida, a state circuit court judge issued a ruling clearing them of the alleged crime. The move is a rare correction of a Jim Crow-era injustice.
Occurring six years before the murder of 14-year-old Emmet Till in Mississippi, the men were accused of kidnapping and raping a young white woman at gunpoint when she was driving home from a dance with her husband. Collectively known as the Groveland Four, the men ranged in age from 16 to 26.
Being accused of violating a white woman Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Ernest Thomas, never stood a chance in a system that conspired with white vigilantes. An NBC News report detailed the violent backlash on the local Black community. Mobs of white men set out on the Black community.
Two of the men were killed before they could ever stand trial. Reports indicate that Thomas was shot over 400 times not long after the allegation surfaced. Irvin was killed by the local sheriff while being transported after winning an appeal in 1951.
A review of the evidence suggests officials possibly fabricated evidence against the men, including a pair of pants that allegedly had semen on the front but was never tested. Tests in September revealed no evidence of semen.
Monday’s decision is the latest step at atonement for the state. News reports indicate the state legislature issued an apology and recommended the four men be exonerated in 2017. As previously reported by NewsOne, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a posthumous pardon of the four men back in 2019.
A monument honoring the men was unveiled in February 2020.
Author Gilbert King who wrote a book in 2012 about the case, praised the decision, calling the original sin an “abomination of justice.”
According to the Associated Press, a grandson of the prosecutor involved in the original case provided evidence that the officials knew there had not been a rape. Letters from 1971 were said to contain evidence of a conspiracy by the sheriff to cover up an illegal gambling operation. (Read the full article here).
The horrific attack on the Black community of Groveland is another example of the endemic nature of white vigilante violence at times encouraged by local law enforcement.
“It’s a phenomenal final chapter, but the last page of the chapter is the one I like the most, it has only two words on it, “the end. The end,” Beverly Robinson, a relative of Shepherd, said in an interview with WFTV. “Decades of suffering.”