On the night of July 16, 1949, a young couple, Norma and Willie Padgett, found themselves in a broken down car on a dead-end road near the outskirts of Groveland, Florida. As they struggled to start their vehicle, four black young men (Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Ernest Thomas) would approach offering assistance resulting in their being falsely accused of raping Norma, a then 17 year old white woman. Furthermore, this would cause three of them to be tortured until police were able to force a confession, as well as Thomas being killed after a manhunt, Greenlee sentenced to spend the remainder of his life in prison, and Shepherd and Irvin receiving the death penalty. Irvin and Shepherd would also go on to, while being transported from the county jail for a retrial, be shot by the sheriff ending with one fatality. Furthermore, this led to them not receiving pardon until January 11, 2019…a few days ago… and 70 years later. But, I ask how many stories like this must make their way into our ears? How many false rape accusations against black men at the hands of white accusers have crossed our court rooms? How many false convictions? How many years spent in prison unnecessarily? I raise you the question: How often must we hear of this imaginary threat that spews from Black men?
As far as convictions like that of the Groveland Four go, “the rape charge has been indiscriminately aimed at Black men, the guilty and innocent alike. Thus, of the 455 men executed between 1930 and 1967 on the basis of rape convictions, 405 of them were black” and “the myth of the black rapist has been methodically conjured up whenever recurrent waves of violence and terror against the black community have required convincing justifications. ” (Davis, 107). But, throughout history, the false imprisonment of black citizens has manifested itself in many ways. It has been ingrained into society as a brick amongst the foundation of a house. The mass and unreasonable incarceration of black America has served a key role in the oppression of our people, and it has made obvious that, in no uncertain terms, slavery has not been abolished. It has merely turned into the prison industrial complex which preys on black bodies, demonizes brown citizens, and profits off of African American males. The system is a joke that finds its humor in an imaginary threat placed upon black men’s being. Why? Because the 13th amendment did not abolish slavery.
It reads “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
That word “except” has served as a loophole allowing the mass incarceration of black bodies. That word “except” has allowed slavery to continue in a new form. That word “except” has allowed the false imprisonment of African Americans at EXTREMELY high rates. That word “except” allowed four black men to go without pardon for a crime they did not commit 70 years ago. That word “except” allowed 70 years to pass. Seventy. Now, explain to me where the justice in the justice system is. Explain to me the freedom sung about in the the national anthem. Explain to me why it takes 70 years for innocence to be realized. Explain to me why it isn’t recognized until black bodies have long been buried in the ground and the in the dirt that you call “press”. Explain it to me white America. Our bodies are not threats. Our men are not evil. Our skin is not a danger, and we, we are people. This threat that spews from Black men… it isn’t real. Stop trying to justify it.
Happy Black History Month.