Goff and his men had an explanation for the “accident.” They told the sheriff they’d only taken Howard down to the river so the boy’s daddy could give him a whipping. But Howard jumped into the river instead, drowning himself.
James Howard was threatened into supporting Goff’s version. Three days later, the Howards sold their house and left town. But not before Thurgood Marshall stepped in and requested that Florida Gov. Spessard Holland demand an investigation. The governor condemned the killing but told Marshall, “I am sure you realize the particular difficulties involved where there will be the testimony of three white men and probably the girl against the testimony of one Negro man.”
Marshall’s NAACP friend Harry T. Moore believed it was “a waste of time to seek help from state authorities.” He’d investigated dozens of lynchings in Florida and concluded, “The life of a Negro in Suwannee County is a very cheap article.”
Despite Marshall’s efforts, a Florida grand jury declined to indict Goff and his two accomplices. The Department of Justice never moved on the case, and the killing of Willie James Howard was soon forgotten.
- From “Florida’s History of Failed Justice,” by Gilbert King