Willis V. McCall

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Willis V. McCall
Willis.Virgil.McCall.1951.jpg
Photo of Willis McCall taken in 1951, 15 minutes after he claimed to have been attacked by Sam Shepherd and Walter Irvin, handcuffed prisoners. He shot them both, killing Shepherd. Irvin claimed he shot them in cold blood, with no provocation.
Born Willis Virgil McCall
July 21, 1909
Umatilla, Lake County, Florida
Died (aged 84)
Occupation Sheriff

Willis Virgil McCall (July 21, 1909 – April 28, 1994) was an elected sheriff of Lake County, Florida. He served seven consecutive terms from 1944 to 1972, losing his bid for an eighth term shortly after being acquitted of the murder in 1972 of Tommy J. Vickers, a mentally disabled black prisoner in his custody.

McCall's notoriety outlived him. In 2007, the Lake County Commission voted unanimously to change a road named in his honor 20 years before, due to his history as a "bully lawman whose notorious tenure was marked by charges of racial intolerance, brutality and murder."[1] He gained national attention in the Groveland Case in 1949. In 1951 he shot two defendants in the case while transporting them to a new trial, killing one on the spot. He was not indicted for this action. During his 28-year tenure as sheriff, McCall was investigated multiple times for civil rights violations and inmate abuse, and tried for murder, but was never convicted.[2][3]

Early years[edit]

Willis McCall was born in Umatilla, Lake County, Florida, son of Walter (born c. 1877) and Pearl (born c. 1886) McCall. His father was a dirt farmer from Alabama.[3][4]

Career[edit]

McCall was first elected as Sheriff of Lake County in 1944, and successively re-elected until 1972. "At 6 feet 1 and weighing more than 200 pounds, McCall loomed large as Lake sheriff from 1945 until 1972. He wore a trademark white felt hat, black string tie and polished boots."[2]

Groveland Four[edit]

On July 16, 1949, Norma Padgett, a 17-year-old married white woman in Groveland, Florida, said she had been raped by four young black men. The next day, 16-year-old Charles Greenlee, Sam Shepherd, and Walter Irvin were arrested and jailed pending trial. Shepherd and Irvin were both U.S. Army veterans. Sheriff McCall was out of state at the time but returned the next day. This case attracted national attention; McCall was frequently in the limelight.[3]

Ernest Thomas fled the county and avoided arrest, but a Sheriff's posse shot and killed him about 200 miles northwest of Lake County. A coroner's inquest was unable to determine who killed Thomas as he was shot many times.

As word spread about the alleged rape, an angry crowd of whites gathered at the county jail in Tavares, demanding that McCall turn the suspects over to them for lynching. He had hidden Shepherd and Irvin in the basement of his Eustis, Florida home and transferred them to Raiford State Prison for their safety.

The mob headed toward Groveland, where two of the suspects and their families lived. Unrest continued and, on the third day, McCall and several prominent businessmen warned the black residents to leave town until things settled, which most did. McCall called the Florida Governor asking for National Guard troops to be sent to Lake County; by the time the troops arrived in Groveland, the mob had already burned several buildings to the ground, including the family home of Sam Shepherd.[5]

A grand jury indicted the three rape suspects. Shepherd and Greenlee later told FBI investigators that deputies beat them until they confessed to the crime. U.S. Attorney Herbert Phillips failed to return indictments against Lake County Sheriff's deputies James Yates and Leroy Campbell for their roles.

Reviews of the trial have showed it filled with flaws. McCall had told the press before the trial that two men had confessed. The all-white jury quickly convicted each of the three men. The judge sentenced Shepherd and Irvin to death. Because he was underage, at age 16 Greenlee was sentenced to life in prison. In 1951, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Lake County's verdict on the grounds that blacks had been improperly excluded from the jury. (At this time, most blacks were still disfranchised by the state constitution and discriminatory practices in the segregated, Jim Crow state; because they could not vote, they were not eligible to sit on juries.) In November 1951, McCall was personally transporting Shepherd and Irvin from Raiford to Tavares for the retrial. He pulled off to a country road, claiming tire trouble. He swore in a deposition that Shepherd and Irvin attacked him in an escape attempt, and that he shot them both in self-defense. The prisoners were handcuffed together during the entire incident. Shepherd was killed on the spot, and McCall shot Irvin three times, but he survived. During the incident Deputy James Yates also arrived and, according to Irvin, shot him again while he was wounded. .

Ambulances took McCall and Irvin to Waterman Hospital in Eustis. McCall was treated for a concussion and facial injuries, and Irvin for his gunshot wounds. At the hospital Irvin met with NAACP lawyers and later told the press that McCall shot him and Shepherd without provocation, as did Yates. In the early 21st century, Gilbert King examined the unredacted FBI files from the case. He wrote in his book published in 2012 that the FBI had located a bullet in the soil ten inches below the blood stain where Irvin had lain wounded, supporting Irvin's claim that Yates fired at him from near point blank range.[6]

When a Lake County coroner's inquest concluded that McCall had acted in the line of duty, Judge Truman Futch ruled that he saw no need to impanel a grand jury on this incident. After Irvin recovered from the shooting, his re-trial was moved to Marion County (just north of Lake County), beginning in February 1952. He was offered a plea bargain but Irvin refused to plead guilty and maintained his innocence. The jury found Irvin guilty, and the judge sentenced him to death again. The case was appealed, but the conviction was upheld by the Florida State Supreme Court. In early 1954, the Supreme Court of the United States declined to hear the case.

Supporters of Irvin appealed to the governor for clemency. After reviewing the material personally, newly elected Governor LeRoy Collins in 1955 commuted Irvin's sentence to life in prison, saying that he did not believe the State established guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Greenlee, who did not appeal his case, was paroled in 1962, and Irvin in 1968. Irvin died in 1970 while visiting Lake County.

1951 Harry T. Moore bombing[edit]

Harry T. Moore, executive director of the Florida NAACP, challenged segregation and law enforcement. Through the 1940s and early 1950s, he succeeded in gaining voter registration of tens of thousands of blacks; they had been essentially disfranchised since a new state constitution at the turn of the century. Following the convictions and sentencing in the Groveland case, he requested that the Governor suspend McCall from office and investigate allegations of prisoner abuse. Six weeks after calling for McCall's removal, Moore and his wife were killed when a bomb exploded under their bedroom in Mims in Brevard County on Christmas night 1951. Rumors alleged that McCall was behind the bombing. But, an extensive FBI investigation at the time and additional separate FBI and Justice Department investigations since have failed to produce any evidence linking McCall in any way.[7]

In 2005, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement began a new investigation of the Moore bombing, to include excavation of their home site in a search for new forensic evidence. On August 16, 2006, Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist announced his office had completed its 20-month investigation, resulting in the naming of four now-dead suspects: Earl Brooklyn, Tillman Belvin, Joseph Cox and Edward Spivey.[7] All four had a long history with the Ku Klux Klan, serving as officers in the Orange County Klavern. The investigation reported finding no link between McCall and Moore.[7]

Platt children[edit]

In 1954, McCall was asked by the Lake County school board to uphold their decision to ban five children from a segregated white public school in Mount Dora after parents and teachers suspected them of being "Negro."[8] (Under a one-drop law in Florida, passed in the early 20th century, persons with any known African ancestry were classified as black, regardless of appearance or proportion of European ancestry.) In 1954 the US Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregation of public schools was unconstitutional. The state participated in southern resistance to school integration.

McCall visited the Platts' house and examined the five children. He concluded they were negroes, disqualifying them from the white school.[8] Official birth and marriage records all classified the Platts as white; they were said to have Indian ancestry as well.[8][9] McCall addressed a Delaware chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of White People later that year; he urged whites to oppose the desegregation of schools.[9]

Because of threats and violence, the Platts did not have their children attend the public school. McCall arranged to have the children enrolled in the Mt. Dora Christian Home and Bible School, a private school not subject to segregation laws. On October 18, 1955, a court ruled that the children could attend white public school. By then the Platt family had decided to move away from Florida.[10] The Platt family did not move away from Florida in 1955. The eldest Platt child graduated from the Christian Home and Bible School in 1960. The two other Platt children graduated in 1959, and the younger children were still in school.

Indictment for death of prisoner Tommy J. Vickers[edit]

McCall was indicted in 1972 for second-degree murder by a state grand jury for the death of Tommy J. Vickers, a mentally disabled African-American prisoner, while in his custody. Vickers died in the hospital in April 1972 of acute peritonitis due to a blow to the lower abdomen. McCall was accused of kicking and beating Vickers to death for throwing his food on the floor.[2] Governor Reubin Askew suspended McCall the day of the indictment. McCall was acquitted by an all-white jury in Ocala in neighboring Marion County after a lengthy trial. The jury concluded their deliberations after 70 minutes.[2] McCall returned to office. Critics have argued that the all-white jury never seriously considered the charges. Supporters of the sheriff claim that the charges made against McCall were fabricated and based on politics. The presiding state judge said that the charges brought against McCall appeared to have been false.[2]

Later years[edit]

Days after his trial for the manslaughter of Vickers, McCall narrowly lost his re-election bid in November 1972. Lake County had changed considerably during his time in office, growing in population, with many new people from the North as retirees. Before that time, McCall was said to brag that he had been investigated 49 times and that five different governors tried to remove him.[3] "I've been accused of everything but taking a bath and called everything but a child of God," he like[d] to say.[3] He retired to his home in Umatilla, Florida.

In 1985, the Lake County Board of County Commissioners named the road by his house, County Road 450A (CR 450A), as Willis V. McCall Road in his honor. More than 20 years later, the South Umatilla Neighborhood Association, a group of black residents on the road, some of whom had lived there for 50 years, asked the Lake County Commission to change the name of the road, as they objected to its honoring a man with such a history. The Commission members unanimously voted to change the road's name back to County Road 450A.[1]

Late in life, McCall published a memoir about his experiences, The Wisdom of Willis McCall. He defended his long career as sheriff and responded to public criticism. "McCall never doubted himself, the usefulness of segregation or the morality of the methods he used to enforce law and order."[2] McCall died on April 28, 1994 at the age of 84.

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Stephen Hudak, "From Willis V. McCall Road To County Road 450A", Orlando Sentinel, 3 October 2007
  2. ^ a b c d e f John Hill, "Wrong Turn: A Southern sheriff's law and disorder", St. Petersburg Times, 28 November 1999
  3. ^ a b c d e Ben Green, Chap. One, Before His Time: The Untold Story of Harry T. Moore, America's First Civil Rights Martyr, New York Times, 13 June 1999, published with Adam Nossiter, Review: "Fighting Jim Crow", same date
  4. ^ 1910 U.S. Census record
  5. ^ PBS - Freedom Never Dies: The Story of Harry T. Moore - Florida Terror - Groveland - Introduction
  6. ^ Gilbert King, Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America (2012), p.?
  7. ^ a b c Crist, Charlie. "The Christmas 1951 Murders of Harry T. and Harriette V. Moore, Results of the Attorney General's Investigation" (PDF). FL Attorney General's Office. Retrieved 27 January 2018. 
  8. ^ a b c King, Gilbert. "Chapter 22: A Place In the Sun." Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America, New York: Harper, 2012. p. 340
  9. ^ a b "Look at Your Own Child," Time Magazine, 13 December 1954
  10. ^ Berry, Steve (February 10, 1991). "Suspicion Of 'Nigra' Blood Racked Family Lake County Racial Case Captured National Attention". Orlando Sentinel. Retrieved 27 January 2018. 

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