A Southern sheriff's law and disorder

To the "good people'' of Lake County - bankers, grove owners, white people in general - Sheriff Willis V. McCall was the law. The rest of the people were on their own.


© St. Petersburg Times, published November 28, 1999

To the “good people” of Lake County – bankers, grove owners, white people in general – Sheriff Willis V. McCall was the law. The rest were on their own.
[Times file photo 1951]
He was a big man -- 6 feet 1, 215 pounds -- with soft, pudgy cheeks, an itchy trigger finger and size 13 feet that authorities said he used to kick a retarded black man to death.

Willis Virgil McCall was not only the sheriff, he was the law in Lake County from 1944 until long after he was removed from office in 1972. He believed, above all else, in enforcing lawanorder, a code of moral and criminal behavior he lumped into a single word.

McCall was born poor, the son of a dirt farmer whose family homesteaded the gently rolling hills of northern Lake County in the 19th century. To these pioneers, Florida was an escape -- from the abject ruin of the Confederate states, from the imperial grip of the federal government, from the impending demise of the family farm, from the rise of progressivism and the modern city. As a boy, in the years before America fought its first European war, McCall toiled shoeless in the fields. He hunted and fished and dreamed of life without debt. On cold mornings, he'd stick his toes in cow manure to warm his feet.

McCall's grit amid the hardship of his childhood was typical of the Crackers who scratched a life in rural Florida. Sober and independent, these men became possessed of a strong work ethic and defining views on race, politics, family and the law. What separated McCall was his ambition -- an ambition driven by the fear of poverty.

He built a profitable dairy, then landed a state job inspecting fruit. Neither would secure a growing family. So in 1944, McCall parlayed his ties to bankers and growers within the citrus industry -- the one he was supposed to regulate -- and won election as sheriff, a job he'd hold for 28 years.

McCall's election coincided with radical changes in Florida's economy -- changes that propelled him onto the national stage and laid the groundwork for his ouster. The loss of young men to the war effort came at a critical time for Lake County. With the advent of orange juice concentrate, the world demand for processed citrus far exceeded what the county's 1,100 square miles could produce. Every able body was needed in the groves. But veterans returning home wanted more of a life than citrus had to offer. Some took advantage of the opportunity to leave for jobs in other states. Union leaders saw the tight labor market as leverage over Lake's booming citrus industry -- an industry that was creating the equivalent of Microsoft millionaires throughout the sandy slopes of the central Florida ridge.

To the bankers and grove owners who underwrote his campaign, the union drive marked the important first test of the young sheriff. McCall responded vigorously. He used anti-vagrancy laws to jail those who refused to work, intimidated union leaders and ran "troublemakers" at gunpoint from Lake County. The U.S. Justice Department opened a civil rights investigation -- the first of dozens throughout McCall's career -- into charges that the sheriff supported slave camps. When union leader Alex Axelrod came to town, in 1946, McCall handcuffed him and paraded him around, telling grove workers: "Look at his wrists!"

His image as a white supremacist, union buster and local boy done good swept McCall into a second term.

His big break came in 1949. In July, a white farm bride claimed she was abducted and raped by four black men in the backwoods town of Groveland. McCall quickly arrested Sam Shepherd and Walter Irvin, who had been pals in the Army. The two had refused to work in the groves. Shepherd's family also had angered many whites for making a success of a small family farm, thus improving their standing within the black community. McCall saw the chance to take this "uppity" black man down a peg. By charging Shepherd with rape, the sheriff would solve two problems at once.

McCall's deputies beat the men and did little to stop the rioting that continued for days after the arrests. Shepherd and Irvin were convicted and sentenced to death. (A third defendant received life in prison; a fourth was pursued, shot and killed by a posse.) In April 1951, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the death sentences, blaming McCall for ruining the prospects of a fair trial. In November, as he was transporting the prisoners for retrial, McCall shot Shepherd and Irvin on a dark and deserted country road, claiming the manacled prisoners tried to jump him and escape. Irvin survived and told a different story -- that McCall shot in cold blood.

McCall's act drew sharp condemnation around the world. Hundreds of telegrams poured into the White House each day, urging his arrest and pleading for intervention by the federal courts. Soviet diplomat Andrei Vishinsky cited McCall as proof of America's hypocrisy in calling for human rights abroad. "Willis," the local prosecutor reportedly told him, "you have (peed) in my whiskey."

But the criticism only burnished McCall's reputation as a no-nonsense lawman -- the kind, the sheriff was fond of saying, that "the good people of Lake County" could depend on for protection amid a world of changing mores. By the 1950s, largely under the leadership of then-Gov. LeRoy Collins, Florida began to diversify its economic base, attract new residents from the politically moderate Midwest and expand access to quality education. McCall saw this as a departure from Florida's pioneer character and feared it would undermine the social balance. He blamed leftists and the media, warned against world domination by the U.N. and foresaw (as did many others) a Soviet plot to infiltrate America through civil rights organizations active in the South.

He did what he could. He threw Indian children out of Lake's public schools. He lured interracial couples to the forest, where deputies beat them. He hired a convicted felon as a deputy, manipulated public funds, threatened reporters and investigators, refused to banish "Colored Waiting Room" signs from his jail and relied on evidence in criminal cases that his deputies outright faked.

McCall's final act of brutality in office surrounded the beating death of Tommy Vickers, a retarded black prisoner in the sheriff's custody. It was April 1972. McCall was indicted and suspended from office by then-Gov. Reubin Askew, who had finally had enough. McCall was tried in Ocala; he napped and did crosswords in court, and was acquitted 70 minutes after the case went to the all-white jury.

The indictment sapped energy from McCall, but it wasn't what finally did him in. The Democratic sheriff was already losing a mathematical game to the progressive Northerners and Republican retirees moving into Lake County. None had any roots or need for McCall's machine. The citrus belt had moved south, and with it, the need for a muscleman as sheriff. McCall lost his bid for re-election and retired near ancestral land, spending days drinking coffee with friends and tending his ranch.

McCall died in April 1994, at age 84. Hundreds said goodbye inside a country church near the sheriff's boyhood home. Though he spent his final years reconciling his legacy, McCall never doubted himself, the usefulness of segregation or the morality of the methods he used to enforce lawanorder.

"I would hate to be remembered like some of them would like me to be remembered," the sheriff told a reporter, several years before his death, "as an old sonofabitch."

John Hill is working on a book about McCall.

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