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‘Devil in the Grove’ author calls pardon ‘a great moment in government’

Gilbert King's Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the Groveland Four helped set the pardon in motion.
Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall, far left, and an unidentified man stand next to Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Charles Greenlee. Courtesy Florida Memory Project
Published Jan. 11
Updated Jan. 11

"This will be one of the most rewarding things in my life," author Gilbert King said of the Florida Clemency Board's pardon on Friday of the Groveland Four.

The long road that led to the pardon arguably began with King's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America. Published in 2012, it revealed long-hidden evidence about the case as well as recounting the events in electrifying style, bringing wide attention to a dark chapter in Florida history.

RELATED COVERAGE: Florida pardons Groveland Four: 'This was a miscarriage of justice'

King spoke to the Times by phone on his way from Tallahassee, where he had spoken before the board, to his home in New York City.

Gilbert King won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction for his book Devil in the Grove.

Were you surprised at the testimony of Norma Padgett, the accuser of the Groveland Four? Had she recanted her accusations earlier?

At one point I had to get up and basically testify, with Norma Padgett sitting about five feet away.

She really hasn't publicly gone back and forth. There is a story that she came to the Shepherd house when James Shepherd (brother of Samuel Shepherd, who was shot to death by Sheriff Willis McCall) was dying and asked to speak to him for five minutes. When his wife asked what that was all about, he said, that was Norma Padgett. She apologized and told me it never happened. But she has never publicly recanted.

Were you surprised that the pardon came through today?

I was completely surprised. My understanding was that there would be an investigation, that this was a procedural thing. FDLE had just contacted me, asking for documents and notes and reports. I figured it would be months. I almost didn't come. But, as Nikki Fried said, a couple of audibles were called.

What will the pardon mean to the families of the Groveland Four?

I think it means the world to them. The apology, the unanimous vote for it in the Legislature, meant a lot. But there had to be an official statement that this had been a grave injustice. It was about clearing their names. That was all they ever asked. To me, it was just a joy to see their burden lifted.

The United States has never made any formal apology for slavery or other forms of racial injustice. Does this pardon signal any kind of change?

Because we've never had the kind of truth and reconciliation commission that South Africa had after apartheid, we've never really acknowledged those injustices. It's been left to the storytellers and the lawyers.
That seems to be the American system, calling attention to the stories and then filing lawsuits. I wish we had some kind of national program to deal with this in a more responsible way.

What do you think about the pardon finally being approved after it was put off for years by the previous governor's administration?

To me, this just says a lot about leadership. (Comissioner of Agriculture) Nikki Fried said it first, that she wanted to bring it up for a vote. Then (Chief Financial Officer) Jimmy Patronis put it on the agenda. (U.S. Sen.) Marco Rubio spoke out about it. Even (Gov. Ron) DeSantis himself got on board.

It had a bipartisan level of support. It seems it's not even being seen as a political issue but as an American issue, a matter of right versus wrong.

It's a great moment in government that people can be proud of.

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

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