The Florida Bar

Florida Bar Journal

Accidental Activist: Justice for The Groveland Four

by Josh Venkataraman and Barbara Venkataraman Book Reviews

This remarkable little nonfiction book of 116 pages is predicated on the “after story” of a grim chapter in Florida history. In 1949, in Groveland, a white 17-year-old woman falsely accused four young African-American men of rape. The false accusations led to the assembly of a mob-like posse, which in turn resulted in the death or unlawful imprisonment of the falsely accused young men.

The stories of the Groveland Four might have faded away into the same kind of “look the other way” shadowy obscurity that dims our collective recollections of other forgotten racial injustices but for the intense pursuit of justice by Josh Venkataraman, one of the authors. Indeed, tracing his passion back to a random drive on a Florida interstate highway, for reasons even he is not able to fully understand, Josh found himself changed from everyday University of Florida student to activist — filled with an energy and perseverance to clear the names of the wrongfully accused and heinously damaged Groveland Four.

This book tells the story of the then-21-year-old Josh’s efforts “to do something to help.” In the densely packed pages, Josh takes us on his journey, with his mother Barbara, to right the wrong. He tells us about tracking down Carol Greenlee, the daughter of one of the accused, Charles Greenlee, and how that led him to the next step in the long difficult path to success. He explains how each “next step” either gave hope or threw up a roadblock, and how he faced each with courage and determination.

The easy and sometimes lightly humorous tone in Accidental Activist is almost too casual but the approach works to blunt the edges of the sharp subject material. The book includes some useful photographs and timelines that help the reader put the whole matter into context. Josh and Barbara ask for no commendation nor do they purport to deserve any recognition for their efforts. They take comfort and draw a kind of quiet pride simply from doing the right thing and getting the right result. The result does not change the awful impacts visited upon the Groveland Four, but their success just might inspire someone else to be called to action for another equally just cause — accidentally or not.

Jeffrey Albinson is a member of The Florida Bar.