The purpose of this paper is to take an in depth look at the historical roots of the Black Lives Matter Movement during the 1940-1970s period. Throughout the course of the paper, the Kerner Commission’s 1968 report is discussed, and Gilbert King’s famous book, Devil in the Grove, is referred to as it analyzes the deadly bigotry during the 1940s and 50s, and highlights the work of the US civil right’s organization, the NAACP, civil rights law, and the pro-white role of the press.
Fifty years ago, the US government stated that Black Lives Matter. The 1968 Kerner Commission’s report, was a study into the reasons for the 1967 urban race riots which had had shaken the US. The results came as a huge shock as they clearly showed that: “white racism and the systemic disadvantages it caused [was to blame. It]… offered hard-hitting arguments about the ways in which white racism was built into…urban America. The report also tackled controversial issues like police violence against African Americans.”1 Extreme riots caused devastation in Michigan, Detroit, New Jersey, and Newark in 1967. And these were not all: a total of 163 riots broke out across America in the summer of that year. One example is the Newark rioting on July 12. This uprising was due to rumors that police had arrested and maltreated a cab driver who was African American. From the perspective of some people associated to the Johnson administration, this rioting was the climax of pent up frustration over extreme police violence accumulated over many years. At the end of five days, the riots in Newark resulted in twenty-six deaths, hundreds of injuries, and huge community property damage.
1. Boston Review. “Fifty Years Ago, the Government Said Black Lives Matter.”
King’s Devil in the Grove gives a searing account of radical injustice and discusses a civil rights case that involved an attorney by the name of Thurgood Marshall. The latter defended four black men known as the Groveland Boys, who were wrongly accused of the rape of a white woman in lake County, Florida in 1949. They were all facing the death penalty. Marshall was at the helm of a legal team which was provided by a top US civil rights organization, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.1
During the same year, the orange industry in Florida, a state with white supremacy, was doing extremely well economically, and African-American workers made the elites of the industry very rich through their hard labor. The former worked according to Jim Crow law. This can be described as: “any of the laws that enforced radical segregation in the South between the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and the beginning of the civil rights movement in the 1950s. Jim Crow was the name of a minstrel routine.”2. This expression was used as a derogatory name for African Americans and as a description their segregation from whites.
In order for the legal defense fund to agree to take on the Groveland boy’s case, three factors had to be met: a realistic chance of initiating a precedent within the court, the innocence of the men, and injustice due to color or race. The woman who reported the rape was a separated, yet
still married 17 year old, by the name of Norma Lee Padgett. She stated that after leaving a dance which she had been to with her husband, the four Groveland Boys had kidnapped and raped her after a dance she attended with her husband. Sheriff Willis McCall, who was an associate of the Florida citrus barons and renowned for his rough treatment of African-Americans, was entrusted to maintain order at the orange plantations in Lake County. He was also an instigator of the local Ku Klux Klan, who in reality, randomly picked up Sam Shepherd, Charles Greenlee and Walter Irvin, who were suspects, and proceeded to take them to the local jailhouse where they were exposed to torture. Due to this inhumane treatment, the boys gave “confessions” under duress. This was widely reported in the pro-white press and media. Ernest Thomas, the remaining suspect, was shot dead by police in a cypress swamp after he had been hunted down.1
Marshall took an appeal for Irvin and Shepherd right to the Supreme Court, and this turned around the 1951 Shepherd v. Florida convictions. The growing civil rights movement was reliant on Marshall, and the members feared for his life during the Groveland boy’s case, and regarded him as irreplaceable. In fact, Marshall was the recipient of countless threats on his life, and the Ku Klux Klan actually killed one of his associates at the NAACP, due to his involvement in the Florida case. At the time the US Supreme Court made this ruling, Ku Klux Klan members besieged the town, forced hundreds of African Americans to run for their lives into the swamps,
and burned their homes to the ground. Sheriff McCall carried on with his fierce anti-black drive,
and along with the deputy sheriff, drove the two suspects away from the town and fired shots at them. Shepherd died immediately. And even after receiving a pardon from the governor of Florida in 1955, the anti-black sheriff and his deputy still went after Irvin.1
- Boston Review. “Fifty Years Ago, the Government Said Black Lives Matter.” 5 May, 2016. Web.
30 June, 2016.
- Encyclopedia Britannica. “Jim Crow Law.” 21 April, 2015. Web. 30 June, 2016.
- King, Gilbert (2012). Devil in the Grove. US: Harper.