Goff and his men had an explanation for the “accident.” They told the sheriff they’d only taken Howard down to the river so the boy’s daddy could give him a whipping. But Howard jumped into the river instead, drowning himself.
James Howard was threatened into supporting Goff’s version. Three days later, the Howards sold their house and left town. But not before Thurgood Marshall stepped in and requested that Florida Gov. Spessard Holland demand an investigation. The governor condemned the killing but told Marshall, “I am sure you realize the particular difficulties involved where there will be the testimony of three white men and probably the girl against the testimony of one Negro man.”
Marshall’s NAACP friend Harry T. Moore believed it was “a waste of time to seek help from state authorities.” He’d investigated dozens of lynchings in Florida and concluded, “The life of a Negro in Suwannee County is a very cheap article.”
Despite Marshall’s efforts, a Florida grand jury declined to indict Goff and his two accomplices. The Department of Justice never moved on the case, and the killing of Willie James Howard was soon forgotten.
But the boy’s death hardened Marshall and Moore for the most explosive case of their careers six years later, when Lake County law enforcement and an armed posse set its sights on four young Florida men known as the Groveland Boys, who had been falsely accused of raping a 17-year-old white farm girl. By the end of this incident of terror, four people were killed, including Moore and his wife, who died in Sanford after the Klan placed a bomb under their house.
Marshall’s determination for justice inspired a citrus boycott (“Notice Negro Blood on Your Grapefruit?”) and other political and economic pressures, forcing Gov. LeRoy Collins into action rather than risk the loss of Northern investment and tourism in Florida.
In Sanford today, national outrage over the shooting of Trayvon Martin has forced the Department of Justice to intervene. For this reason alone, Florida is a much different racial landscape than it was more than half a century ago, when Thurgood Marshall fought valiantly to bring justice to white men who took the lives of young black men in Florida and never paid any price.
Gilbert King is the author of Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America.