Monday, February 22, 2016

The power of a book!

Speaking of the awesomeness of books (we were speaking about that, weren’t we?), my son Josh is a student at UF in Gainesville, FL and really isn’t much of a reader (much to my dismay), but he was required to read a book for his history class which had a profound effect on him. 

The book was the Pulitzer-Prize winning“Devil in the Grove” by Gilbert King which dealt with a horrible racist event in Florida from 1949. Four black men were falsely accused of raping a 17 year old white woman. They didn't even know each other, had alibis and there was no evidence of a rape but within 24 hours, a posse of 1,000 men led by the Sheriff hunted down one of the men and killed him. The others were brutally tortured to make them confess, although two of them refused. In a rigged trial, they were sentenced to death & the 16 year old, Charles Greenlee was sentenced to life in prison. The KKK came in and burned down black homes and businesses; the National Guard came in to control the KKK. Thurgood Marshall came down to represent them, one of his early cases. He lost, but won a retrial after appealing to the Supreme Court. After the retrial was granted, the sheriff transported the 2 prisoners, Shepherd and Irvin, drove down a dirt rode and shot them both, claiming they tried to escape. One of them played dead and lived to tell the story. Nothing ever happened to the sheriff. The 16 year old eventually got out of prison as did the wounded man, Walter Irvin, although he didn’t live long after that.

Josh was very disturbed by this book and one day, while driving back to school, he passed the sign for Groveland. He said it was like a punch in the gut—suddenly, it was a real place with real people who had been terribly mistreated. He called me and said he wanted to help exonerate the men since he knew their families had been trying to do that for decades. He thought about making a documentary (he is a film & TV production major), but decided to start a petition. He contacted the author through e-mail and the author was very nice, but said they had tried a petition before & it wasn’t successful. Then Josh tracked down Charles Greenlee’s daughter Carol in Tennessee and introduced himself and said he wanted to help. She was uncertain at first, but he convinced her. He started a petition on last March and it only garnered 200 signatures. Then Josh contacted Leonard Pitts, a nationally syndicated columnist for the Miami Herald, and convinced him to read the book. After that, Pitts interviewed Josh and Carol by phone and wrote a great article. The petition took off and, since then, there have been a dozen articles in various papers and magazines and Josh and Carol have appeared on radio shows, although they still hadn’t met. Today, the petition has 8,330 signatures and many powerful comments by the signers.  

Josh has been in regular contact with the author, Gilbert King and many other family members of the Groveland Four have reached out to him. Josh had to go to NY for a job fair and met up with Gilbert King there. They made a plan for Gilbert to come speak at UF for Black History Month by partnering with the Levin School of Law and the history dept. 

Then, a big surprise happened, the mayor of Groveland, Florida announced that he would publicly apologize to the families! After 69 years, this was so huge! They invited the families, as well as Gilbert King and Josh to Groveland last Tuesday and in front of 100 people and lots of press, the mayor gave his heartfelt apology to the families. It was incredible!!
Two days, later, Gilbert King spoke at UF about his book and the Jim Crow South and then there was a panel made up of two of the family members, Gilbert King, and Josh. It was so emotional to hear the family speak about what they went through. (And Josh met Carol Greenlee finally!). And then an even bigger surprise came during the question and answer session. A blond man in his 30’s stood up and said that his great-uncle WAS the devil in the grove, his great-uncle was Sheriff Willis McCall and that he had come today to apologize to the families and then he started crying and the whole room gasped and started sniffling and crying, even the moderator. It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever been through. My husband and I were so glad we drove up for that.

The hope for exoneration has grown stronger and the fight goes on, but I thought you would appreciate learning about the power of a book.

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