The Groveland Four finally received a little justice last week.
Nearly seven decades after a white woman in Central Florida leveled a false charge of rape, the state legislature apologized for what was done to four young African-American men as a result.
For 16-year-old Charles Greenlee being hung nude from a pipe in the basement of the jail, beaten about the groin with a rubber hose, cut by shards of a Coca-Cola bottle strewn beneath his bare feet, until he confessed to what he had not done.
For World War II veteran Samuel Shepherd, 22, who was also beaten into a false confession, being executed by the side of the road by a sheriff who claimed the prisoner, while handcuffed in a police car, tried to escape.
For World War II veteran Walter Irvin, also 22, who refused to confess even after being beaten, getting shot three times by the same sheriff while handcuffed to Shepherd, and surviving by playing dead.
For Ernest Thomas, 25, who fled for his life as white mobs rampaged through the black community, being killed by a 1,000-man “posse” in a volley of gunfire – one report said 400 bullets riddled his body – as he slept against a tree.
For those and innumerable other atrocities, the House and Senate tendered their formal regrets. Credit is due the lawmakers who shepherded the bills through. And Josh Venkataraman who, two years ago as a senior at the University of Florida, began a petition drive, pushing the state to own up to its sins. And finally, Carol Greenlee, daughter of Charles, who has agitated for this for years.
Of course, in America, justice is not something you should have to agitate for. And in a case where right and wrong are so jarringly clear, it should not take nearly a lifetime to get it. What does it say about us that almost 70 years must pass before we have sufficient distance from an atrocity to call it an atrocity?
Yes, the Groveland Four finally got some small measure of justice last week and you are glad of it. But there is also a sense of irresolution in that it takes so much and so long for us to confront and condemn the evil that men and women do – or simply countenance – in service to the fiction of race.
Indeed, if this apology tempts anyone to feel good about how enlightened we’ve become, he or she would be well advised to remember that it comes from a state that just a few years ago put a murder victim named Trayvon on trial and judged him guilty of his own death. It comes in a nation where African Americans use drugs at roughly the same rate as whites, but are six times likelier to go to prison for doing so.
And sure enough, it comes within days of the latest police shooting of an unarmed black male – 15-year-old Jordan Edwards, killed Saturday night near Dallas when an officer opened fire on a carload of young people as they drove away from a party.
Some of us will find those comparisons unfair. Some of us will justify the shooting, the arrests, the verdict, in ways that exonerate conscience. They will say you can’t compare those things to Groveland because it was a clear-cut case of justice tainted by race, but these are … something else.
You see, some of us need to get far away before they can see clearly. For them, it takes years for the obvious to become, well … obvious. So let us not over-praise ourselves for being enlightened. Enlightenment requires standing up to injustice in the moment – not just apologizing for it 70 years after the fact.
The Groveland Four finally got a little justice last week, and that is welcome news. But all of them are dead.
Leonard Pitts Jr. can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.