Once upon a time in Florida, for many law enforcement officers, being in the Ku Klux Klan was almost akin to being in the Fraternal Order of Police.
This was especially true in Lake County, a central county of the state once ruled by the Klan and the brutality and bigotry of Sheriff Willis McCall.
“The FBI knew, too, that in Florida in the 1940s and ’50s, county sheriffs openly joined the Klan,” wrote Gilbert King in “Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys and the Dawn of a New America.”
The 2012 Pulitzer Prize-winning book chronicles, among other things, the story of four black men from the Lake County town of Groveland who were falsely accused of raping a white woman, how their community was torched by the Klan, and how McCall shot two of the men — killing one — after Marshall won them new trials.
Lately, though, it seems that the Klan has been trying to reclaim some of that police power.
In Fruitland Park, a Lake County town just north of Groveland, an FBI investigation revealed that Deputy Chief David Borst and Cpl. George Hunnewell were members of the hood-wearing, flaming-cross crowd. And they had a predecessor. In 2009, pictures surfaced online of another Fruitland Park officer, James Elkins, wearing his Klan robe and hood over his police uniform.
Although those Klansmen are no longer on the police force, it’s scary to think that more may try to take their place — with the mentality that police can protect and serve white people by threatening and terrorizing people of color.
And in Central Florida, the numbers show the growing potential threat.
A look at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hate Map (www.splcenter.org/get-informed) shows that Florida is infested with 58 hate groups, the second-highest number after California. Most of those groups are clustered in and around Central Florida, an area still haunted by the ghosts of Groveland and McCall.
That 1949 incident came to a head over social and demographic changes that defied certain notions of white privilege and power.
Sammy Shepherd and Walter Irvin, two of the black Groveland men falsely accused of raping Norma Padgett, a white woman, were, like scores of other African-American World War II veterans around the nation, daring to strut around in their Army uniforms. McCall, however, had ordered all black servicemen not to wear their uniforms and to get back to working in the groves. Shepherd and Irvin ignored him and were accused of the crime. After being convicted of Padgett’s rape and sentenced to death, they won a new trial. But McCall fatally shot Shepherd and critically wounded Irvin as he was driving them to the state prison, then lied and said it was in self-defense. He got away with it, too, as recounted in the 2001 PBS documentary “Freedom Never Dies: The Legacy of Harry T. Moore,” and continued to be re-elected sheriff until his ouster in 1973 over abuse charges.
Certainly, today’s demographic environment is ripe for tension, with Latinos now fueling Florida’s population growth, some highly educated and others finding steady work in the construction industry. No doubt it’s a positive step that the FBI outed Borst and Hunnewell, because they aren’t just random, racist doofuses. They’re dangerous people who apparently believe that the way to make the state of Florida better is to belong to a group that hates African-Americans and the growing Latino population, as well as others who are changing and defining a huge part of Florida and the nation.
Tonyaa Weathersbee is an award-winning columnist based in Jacksonville.