ADDITIONAL INFO & UPDATES
UPDATE: Florida's Attorney General concludes new investigation into 1951 Moore murders, names four Klansmen from Apopka-Winter Garden, FL.
A TALE OF CITRUS AND SECRETS:
A Father Sends His Daughter Back To A Time When The Klan Gripped Orange County - And A Puzzle Falls Into Place
THE ORLANDO SENTINEL, News feature by Kate Santich
Melvin Womack was a 27-year-old fruit picker when he was murdered for the color of his skin one early spring night. He was beaten, stabbed, shot several times -- including once in the head -- and left to die in a crumpled heap along an old red clay road in Winter Garden.
It was 1951. Womack was black. And the Ku Klux Klan, it turned out, had mistaken him for someone else.
The next day's Orlando Sentinel-Star made no mention of the crime, nor was it ever officially investigated. Womack had the tragic misfortune of dying at a time when the KKK's membership roster included sheriffs and doctors and city councilmen -- and even Florida's governor, Fuller Warren.
In fact, Womack's violent death might never have been publicly revisited at all but for a woman he never met, a woman who wouldn't even learn his name until four decades later.
Susan Carol McCarthy was born in July 1951, the summer after Womack's murder. She grew up near Apopka, hanging around the roadside citrus stand her family owned on U.S. Highway 441, then the main thoroughfare for snowbirds heading south.
Today, amid a crop of childhood memories, there is a certain sense that she was in this place but not of it, that her parents' Chicago roots and colorblind attitudes forever marked them as outsiders. Even as a girl, she noted the undercurrents that ran through the tiny farming community and grasped its unwritten rules. Sometimes it was as much what was not said as what was.
It was like a puzzle with a handful of key pieces missing.
So in 1991, long after her family had been forced to abandon its citrus packinghouse in bankruptcy, long after McCarthy had traded the Florida peninsula for the Southern California coast, she was surprised to receive a fat envelope one day from her father back in Apopka. Inside was a Sentinel article on FBI documents -- unsealed after 40 years -- detailing the Klan's former stranglehold on Orange County. And underneath was an eight-page letter.
"I want you to hear from the horse's mouth what I did and why I did it," her father began.
McCarthy started reading, astonished at the number of names she recognized in the article -- schoolmates' parents, community leaders, the Apopka police chief. According to unearthed membership rolls, they were all Klansmen.
"It was like, 'Click, click, click. Oh, now I get it,'" she says.
The pieces of the puzzle dropped into place.
Her father, in what had been the family's best-kept secret, had risked his life to stem a tide of Klan violence, breaking into Klan headquarters to steal evidence for the FBI, then dug in his heels when his enemies tried to drive him from his home. For 40 years, he had managed to hold his silence, but, now, with the unsealing of the records, he told his four sons and only daughter what he had done.
And in the corner of his letter to her, he added one more thing: "You're the writer," he scrawled. "Write this."
FAMILY MAKES A STAND
LAY THAT TRUMPET IN OUR HANDS is a novel, Susan Carol McCarthy's first, and since its release in February reviews have ranged from favorable to glowing. "Reminiscent of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD," one said.
"This is a beautiful book about personal courage -- the courage of McCarthy's father, of early [civil rights] leaders like Thurgood Marshall and Harry T. Moore, and of the black community that endured Florida in the early '50s," says James McElroy of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
It is largely her father's story, but told through the eyes of a fictional 12-year-old girl distraught over the murder of a family friend -- a young black citrus picker named Marvin Cully. There are a few other poetic liberties as well, but the events -- the beatings, the bombings, the murder of NAACP activist Harry T. Moore and his wife, Harriette, on Christmas night 1951 -- are not only real but documented.
Moore, single-handedly responsible for helping thousands of African-Americans register to vote, was killed when three pounds of dynamite exploded under the bedroom floor of his Brevard County home. He and Harriette had just returned from celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary.
The murders belatedly attracted federal scrutiny to Florida, where for 30 years more blacks were lynched per capita than in any state in the South. The FBI dispatched more than 20 agents to Orlando, Apopka and Winter Garden, each home to a different Klan chapter. To this day, the agency remains convinced that Klansmen were responsible for the murders, though they could never prove it.
As the owner of a prominent business, Lee MacWithey was questioned by agents during routine canvassing. It quickly became obvious that, unlike most folks the feds encountered, MacWithey was no Klan sympathizer.
For one thing, a hooded member had taken a shot at MacWithey's son, grazing the 7-year-old's temple. The boy had climbed a water tower with a buddy, just playing in the woods, when they spied a group of Klansmen gathering below. The boys had never seen the men in broad daylight like that -- with their white robes and pointy hats -- and it struck them as funny. They began making ghostlike noises through an irrigation pipe: Wooooo!
The Klansmen did not find this amusing.
"The FBI initially asked my father if he would consider joining the Klan as an informant," McCarthy says. "My father just laughed. He figured he'd be discovered in about five minutes."
But he did consent to help the growing investigation in other ways. One night in January 1953, assured by a pipeline of black maids in the community that there would be no meeting that night, he broke into the Apopka fish camp that doubled as Klan headquarters. There he found membership rosters, attendance records, and a list of officers, which he turned over to the FBI.
Had he been caught, he could have been killed or prosecuted. What he was doing, after all, was illegal -- breaking and entering, not to mention stealing. To that point, the FBI lacked evidence to secure a warrant. And when Klansmen discovered their documents missing, their list of suspects quickly narrowed.
"They came after him," McCarthy says. "But my parents had sunk everything they had into their business, and they weren't about to leave. Part of their coping was just not to talk about it."
Once after a family outing to the local drive-in, MacWithey pulled into his driveway to find two men with ax handles waiting in the side yard. The family dog chased them off, but not without taking a blow to the head. Susan Carol was still a baby, held on her mother's lap in the car as the family sat, terrified.
Her father might have waited 10 years to tell her, or even 20. He might have wanted her to be old enough to understand.
"I don't know why he didn't tell me before," she says. "I think perhaps something happens to people when they [near] their 70s. I think it's like they scroll through their life and look for what is meaningful and worthwhile. I know he was proud of what he did."
McCarthy was proud too -- but she was also a working mother. In 1991, living just north of San Diego, she had two boys in elementary school, and she was already scrambling to make PTA meetings after a full day as a free-lance advertising copywriter. She figured she would get around to her father's story eventually, but because she had never attempted a book before, she envisioned nothing more than glorified family newsletter, photocopied and passed out to siblings and grandkids.
Six years passed. One day, with her father's 75th birthday two years off, his daughter called to see what he might want to mark the occasion. She supposed he would ask for some great adventure -- maybe the trip to Hawaii that he and his wife had talked about since their 50th anniversary -- and that she would need time to make arrangements and to set aside money.
He had other notions. "I want you to write that book," he said.
"The trip would have been easier," she says now.
NO DETAIL TOO SMALL
When McCarthy closes her eyes, she can still sense the Florida of her youth -- the perfume of orange blossoms, the welcome chill of a sudden summer storm, the various accents of the tourists who would stop by the fruit stand for a glass of cold orange juice.
"I had a great childhood," she says. "But I always had sort of an observer's perspective because my parents were Northerners. I was a huge reader, and when we lived in Plymouth the bookmobile was my lifeline. I spent a lot of time in my imagination, a lot of time outside of Florida in my mind."
In some ways, McCarthy learned more about her home state in the year she spent researching the book than in the quarter-century she lived here. She searched the Internet, sorted through newspaper and magazine archives and even tracked down one of the FBI agents. She tallied up triple-digit phone bills talking with her father, uncovering the details of the era and his own secret past.
"I became possessed," she says. "Every fact had to be verified by at least two sources."
But when she set out to put words to paper, several obstacles arose. First, she didn't wish to air the private laundry of families whose patriarchs had robed themselves in white to commit hate crimes.
"I had to change the names to protect the guilty," she says. "It was my father's right to tell his story, and people can do the research and find out the names easily enough, but it's not for me to reveal. I didn't want to make any unknowing grandchildren uncomfortable -- finding out their grandfather was a Klansman."
Then there was the problem of a narrator. She originally tried wrting from her father's perspective, then her mother's. But when on her third attempt she created the adolescent daughter "Reesa," a literary trickle turned into a torrent."
"Once I did that, once I named that girl and gave her a voice, she started talking in my head and didn't shut up for two years," McCarthy says. "She was very opinionated."
She was especially vocal on racism.
The MacWithey family, it turns out, never actually knew Melvin Womack personally. But McCarthy, who read only a quick mention of him in that 1991 newspaper clipping her father sent, saw him as a symbol. She recognized in him the young black men who worked for her father in the family's groves. They were not merely employees; they became role models and confidants.
"Growing up, I spent so much time with our pickers," she says. "They were important people in my life. We didn't care what color a person's skin was. It was: Who was smart, who was funny, who was great to be with? I tried to imagine if one of them had been killed in the way that Melvin Womack had."
In the book, she names Womack "Marvin Cully" for a reason.
"In the citrus business, you cull fruit. You sort it out by size and color, and it's random. Marvin Cully -- Melvin Womack -- might easily have been picked as not picked. It was the randomness of his murder that outraged me."
In January 1998, she took 25 pages of a rough draft to an annual writers conference in San Diego. Three agents read it. All offered to represent her.
"When I read those first 25 pages, I really went nuts," says New York literary agent Lane Zachary. "I felt like I had to represent her because I just hadn't read such good writing in a long time."
Zachary shopped the manuscript to several publishers, three of whom wanted it. It went to Bantam, the highest bidder.
"There's something in the opening pages about the way Reesa responded to that young man's murder that made me know I wanted to publish this book," says Bantam executive editor Kate Miciak. "I fell in love with her voice, with this 12-year-old girl witnessing an invasion of this perfect world she thought she lived in."
Just after MacWithey's 74th birthday that May, his daughter finished the first version. In early June she shared it with her local book club, then called her father to tell him the good news.
"Dad, they loved it," she said. "They thought you were a real hero."
It was a Thursday night in early July 1998.
The following Sunday, after climbing into bed and dozing off, Lee MacWithey died of a heart attack.
He never got to read the book he inspired, but his daughter takes comfort in the fact that at least he knew it was done.
LIVING WITH FEAR
McCarthy's father managed to outlive most of the Klansmen who once threatened him. His family left the citrus business in 1967, driven out by a hard freeze, but her mother, Carolyn MacWithey, now 78, lives in Apopka still.
"He would be so pleased and tickled with Susan's book," she says.
Carolyn MacWithey sees the onrush of development and knows that newcomers have no grasp of the history, no sense of the beauty of a seamless expanse of orange groves in full bloom, nor of the sickening menace of the Klan.
"One couldn't help but be afraid," she says. "We just had to live with that fear. These people acted like they could do whatever they wanted."
McCarthy doesn't know if Womack's relatives still live. She doesn't know where he is buried. She doesn't know, even, how many people will see Womack in Cully.
But she does know that, in part because of what her father did, the Klan's grip on Central Florida slackened. On March 25, 1953, roughly two years after Melvin Womack's murder, a federal grand jury issued a blistering 12-page presentment outlining "a catalog of terror," as The Miami Herald described it. Six Klansmen, five from Apopka and one from Winter Garden, were indicted. And although a judge eventually dismissed the indictments, saying the federal government had no jurisdiction in the case, the tide had already turned.
McCarthy knows too that she has finally found her calling. Already she is at work on a second novel, set in Lake County, again a historical tale of racism.
But although she has high hopes for her second effort, her firstborn remains more a tribute than a labor.
"I've lived a long time and not met people as fine as those who worked for my dad," she says. "In some ways, this is a love letter to my parents and to those wonderful people I knew growing up who just happened to be black."
[© The Orlando Sentinel, April 7, 2002]
The Chautauqua South Fiction Award goes to...
The Chautauqua South Fiction Award Committee named Susan Carol McCarthy its 2003 recipient for her debut novel LAY THAT TRUMPET IN OUR HANDS. The award is given to "recognize and promote a Florida fiction writer of outstanding literary merit."
Committee Chair Luann Justak said, "McCarthy's work stood out for its riveting plot, fascinating characters and unique Old Florida setting. [The judges] were completely captivated by the wise and witty voice of the narrator."
Previous winners include Connie May Fowler, James Carlos Blake, Janis Owens and Richard Schmitt.