“Florida doesn’t count,” my North Carolina friends say when I tell them I consider myself a Southerner. After all, I attended Robert E. Lee Junior High, my classmates weren’t Yankee retirees, and I like grits.
I’m sad to say that my southern identity has been confirmed by the non-fiction book, Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America (2012, Gilbert King, author). I have no memory of ever hearing about events in Groveland, located out Route 50, less than forty miles from my home in Orlando.
In 1949 seventeen-year-old Norma Padgett, white, falsely accused four young black men of raping her. The NAACP defended the three young men, the fourth having been hunted down and killed when he fled capture. In one horrific chapter after another we read about a brutal sheriff, a judge with no regard for fairness, and a unabashed racist community determined to administer “southern justice.” By story’s end, three of the four defendants have been murdered. The home of the head of Florida’s NAACP has been bombed, he and his wife killed. Homes of other black citizens have been burned to the ground.
Events in the book are not from some vague, distant past; this virulent racism occurred during my lifetime.
Court rulings don’t extinguish attitudes that go to our community’s core. The increased visibility of African Americans in professions and a former black President can be daily reminders that white people no longer hold all the power. No, racism like that in Florida of the 1940s and 50s doesn’t simply disappear in one generation. The children of Norma Padgett, of Sheriff Willis McCall, of Klan members intent on lynching the Groveland Boys—many are likely still alive. Their grandchildren too. “Political correctness,” they’ve come to call expectations of civility, of respect for people of another race or ethnic group.
Under a Trump presidency racism need not be concealed any longer. In fact, according to Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, “2016 was an unprecedented year for hate. The country saw a resurgence of white nationalism that imperils the racial progress we’ve made, along with the rise of a president whose policies reflect the values of white nationalists” (http://abcnews.go.com/US/trump-cited-report-finding-increase-domestic-hate-groups/story?id=45529218).
Devil in the Grove and the resurgence of blatant racism leave me with a disturbing truth: If growing up a white girl in a segregated society enforced by violence is a credential of being a Southerner, then I’m a Southerner. As an adult in the era of Trump, though, I will not remain unaware of violent racism that has been unleashed.
Nancy Werking Poling is author of a new book: BEFORE IT WAS LEGAL: A BLACK-WHITE MARRIAGE (1945-1987)