Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida is already mapping out his legacy. The former United States congressman and committed Trump disciple was sworn into office on Tuesday, but continues to nurse wounds from a bruising November election against Andrew Gillum, the black mayor of Tallahassee, whom he defeated so narrowly that a recount was required. Gillum’s most damning charge against DeSantis was that he is a racist — or more specifically, as the mayor quipped at one debate, “I’m not saying Mr. DeSantis is a racist. I’m saying the racists believe he’s a racist.” Gillum’s evidence included that DeSantis had declined to return a campaign donation from a man who called Barack Obama a “Muslim nigger” on Twitter; attended conferences alongside far-right bigots, including Milo Yiannopoulos, David Horowitz, and Sebastian Gorka; and dog whistled his way into national headlines by imploring Floridians not to “monkey this up” by electing his black opponent.
A majority of voters backed the Republican anyway, but even Senator Bernie Sanders — usually hesitant to accuse anyone of racism — characterized the election as one where “racism reared its ugly head,” adding that DeSantis was “racist and [was] doing everything [he] could to try to play whites against blacks.” These are charges the governor has rejected and, if his schedule this week is any indication, hopes to discredit now that he is in office. On Friday, DeSantis used the inaugural Clemency Board meeting of his tenure to secure a full pardon for the Groveland Four, a group of three black men and one black teenager who were accused of raping a 17-year-old white girl named Norma Padgett in 1949.
According to Gilbert King’s 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the case, Devil in the Grove, the story Padgett told at the time — and still maintains is true — is that the men approached her and then-husband Willie on a dark stretch of road where their car had broken down on the night of July 16. After first helping the couple, the men attacked Willie, forced Padgett into the back of a car, drove away, and raped her. Contradicting Padgett’s version of events are several key pieces of evidence, including that a medical examiner found no physical signs that she was sexually violated or otherwise brutalized — no bruising, skin breaks or tears, or indication that she was penetrated; that one of the accused, 16-year-old Charles Greenlee, was already in police custody pending an unrelated charge when the crime was alleged to have taken place; and that Greenlee and another man, Samuel Shepherd, confessed only after being severely beaten by the police.
Both Shepherd and Greenlee told their attorneys that they would not have professed guilt were it not for the officers’ pummeling (a third man, Walter Irvin, was also beaten, but did not confess). All three were convicted regardless. Irvin and Shepherd had their convictions overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1951, but Greenlee, the only one not sentenced to death because he was a minor, did not appeal his conviction. Irvin was later re-convicted after his second trial was moved to another county — but had his sentence commuted in 1955 by Governor LeRoy Collins, who decided that neither jury had proven him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The Groveland and Lake County governments apologized to all four of the accused in 2016. The Florida House of Representatives followed suit in 2017.
It can seem futile to try parsing whether a politician is acting in good faith when they pursue grand symbolic gestures like what DeSantis did on Friday. The Groveland Four are all dead now — Ernest Thomas, shot by a white mob while fleeing the Florida Panhandle days after the alleged crime; Shepherd, shot and killed in 1951 by Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall, who claimed that he and Irvin had tried to escape custody; Irvin, who died on parole in 1969, 13 years after his second death sentence was commuted to life in prison; and Greenlee, who died in 2012, 50 years after being paroled in 1962. As such, any consolation derived from the pardon mainly benefits the men’s families and those who advocated on their behalf. The men themselves died under a shadow of dubious guilt, some having endured decades of physical and psychological brutality in law enforcement custody and prison. One was lynched.
This is not to say that Friday’s reversal is trivial. “It is a weight lifted, it is a cloud lifted,” said Greenlee’s daughter, Carol Greenlee Crawley, according to the Orlando Sentinel. “It’s the dignity of being a Greenlee restored, it’s the shame taken away.” But nor does it alter the near-total absence of political risk involved for DeSantis, who can now claim solidarity with an anti-racist cause despite having weaponized racism to win election less than two months prior. Perhaps the governor did act out of genuine indignation on Friday in a case where, as he articulated in December, “justice was miscarried” and “acts of evil” were done against the accused for “crimes they did not commit.” His record suggests a less noble explanation. The governor has been unabashed about accusing black men of crimes they did not commit when it was politically expedient to do so. His efforts throughout the 2018 campaign to smear Gillum as a criminal in charge of a city overrun by crime — an allegation that rested, in part, on vastly exaggerating the prevalence of murder Tallahassee — culminated in DeSantis’s repeated insistence that the Tallahassee mayor was being investigated for corruption.
Gillum’s name, it turned out, was conspicuously absent from the indictment the FBI eventually unveiled stemming from their investigation. “He got screwed,” Stephen R. Andrews, the attorney who represented the city manager when a grand jury questioned him regarding the case, told Politico. For DeSantis, pardoning four dead black men whose innocence has already been affirmed by past governors and legislative bodies is the equivalent of Republicans praising Martin Luther King, Jr., on his birthday while maintaining power through anti-black voter suppression. Plausible deniability is a vital asset for the racist politician navigating a political environment where racism, though broadly sanctioned, is still seen as impolitic. Friday gifts the governor with a fair bit of that plausible deniability. But the methods he used to gain power remain inseparable from the result.