Trayvon Martin was shot dead in Sanford, Fla., by a man who told police a story of self-defense that's keeping him out of jail. Martin's killing immediately called to mind the sensational 1955 lynching of young Emmett Till, purportedly for whistling at a white woman in Mississippi.
But few people have ever heard of an equally horrific case in Florida nearly 70 years ago, when a 15-year-old black youth, Willie James Howard, was killed by white men who, like George Zimmerman, kept law enforcement at bay with a story of their own. To this day, no one has been held accountable for the forgotten slaying of Howard, despite desperate pleas at the time from a young NAACP lawyer named Thurgood Marshall.
Howard, known around his home in Live Oak, Fla., as "Giddy Boy" because of his round face, gentle disposition and sweet singing voice, got himself into trouble in 1943 when he handed out Christmas cards to the employees of the dime store where he swept floors. One recipient was a 15-year-old white cashier, Cynthia Goff. Her father, Phil Goff, caught wind of the card and young Howard quickly tried to explain himself in a note to the girl.
Now please don't get angry with me … I did not put it in there my self. God did. I can't help what he does can I? I know you don't think much of our kind of people but we don't hate you. All we want to be your friends but you won't let us. Please don't let anybody see this. I hope I haven't made you mad. If I did tell me about it and I will for get about it. I wish this was a northern state. I guess you call me fresh. Write and tell me what you think of me good or bad.
I love your name. I love your voice,
For a S.H. [sweetheart] you are my choice.
Phil Goff got his hands on Howard's second note, rounded up two friends, drove to Howard's house and dragged him away from his mother at gunpoint. After picking up the boy's father, James Howard, the white men drove to the woods along the Suwannee River, where they bound the boy's hands and feet with rope.
"You can either jump into the river or take what is in this gun," Goff told the crying boy, who looked to his father for help.
"Willie, I cannot do anything for you now," James said.
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.