On July 16, 1949, a 17-year-old white girl in Groveland, Fla., told the police she was raped by four black men. The men were arrested, and a lynch mob quickly burned houses down and forced 400 people in the black section of Groveland to leave.
Nearly a half-century later Robert Thompson has spent three years uncovering the rest of the story.
Thompson first learned about the Groveland Four in a history class at the University of Central Florida. On the overhead that day was the case of Norma Padgett. Thompson mentioned that he was from Groveland and people in the class began buzzing as soon as the words left his mouth.
The case was a piece of Groveland's history.
Thompson is a part of that history too -- he grew up in Groveland. He is also now the Executive Producer and Senior Researcher on the "Groveland Four" project. Thompson along with guest speakers Victor Merina, a former reporter at the Los Angeles Times, and Elizabeth Llorente, a reporter on immigration and ethnic affairs at The Record, spoke at a recent Poynter seminar on writing stories about race relations and social justice on Aug. 29-Sept. 3.
Writing stories about race relations and social justice takes time, they said. And, time may be the most important tool in writing such stories along with the challenge of getting people to talk about race.
When Gary Corsair, author of the book "The Groveland Four: The Sad Saga of a Legal Lynching," first called the sister of one of the young boys who was arrested in 1949, he found she was less than receptive about bringing up this old case again. "Her exact words were, 'What is some damn white boy calling me about my brother?'" said Thompson.
So he waited a week. A couple more weeks. And when he finally called back, she was willing to meet with him. Thompson built a relationship with the boys' relatives. Sometimes, their conversations didn't even touch on her brother and the long-ago controversy.
All the while, the relationship between them was building -- eventually allowing an easy flow of information.
Why did Thompson want to create a documentary about this incident? Because it's a part of Florida history -- an untold story. "I was raised in a more liberal home," Thompson said. "But I was still raised in Groveland."
He didn't just want to find out more because the story had to do with his town: He wanted to bring closure to the case.
And even though he has produced a 17-minute documentary about the Groveland Four, he's not done trying to tell this story. It's going to take more time.
Elizabeth Llorente agrees with Thompson about the value of time in crafting a race-sensitive story. When writing her story about the changing racial climate in Paterson, New Jersey, in January and February 2004, she spent most of her time away from her desk and out pounding the pavement.
Llorente was on the streets, in local diners, and front porches to write her story about the changing racial tensions between the black and Hispanic minorities in Paterson. Llorente, a senior writer for The Record, has covered immigration and ethnic affairs for 10 years. She has done investigative work, and written narratives about how different ethnic groups live together.
"Trust takes time -- to sit down and get people to talk about their feelings about race and ethnicity," Llorente said.
Her goal was to write a story about the Hispanic people who were quickly replacing blacks as the largest minority in Paterson -- and to avoid discussing the growth as a 'phenomenon.'
Llorente was motivated by a desire to share how the people in her stories felt with the readers: "So you're not just reading a quote, but you know how they got there," she said.
In her first piece of a two-part series for The Record, "Diverse and Divided: One City, Two Communities" Llorente got underneath the census numbers that showed the shift in demographics.
From his apartment in the predominantly black 4th Ward of Paterson, Bishop Brown sees an America that increasingly pushes him to the margins.
His neighborhood feels lost -- in poverty, crime, in a sense of having been forgotten amid the great swath of boarded-up windows and vacant lots.
The feeling of displacement grows deeper in Brown's neighborhood as Hispanics -- who edged past blacks last year to become the largest minority group in the nation -- soar in number and influence.
Llorente sat with her sources and talked about their families, their hopes and fears, and finally race. "People will open up." Once a person feels you can reflect accurately what they said and that you can put it into context.
These stories are complex and sometimes deal with institutionalized ideas that society has imbedded in their thinking. And if you're writing about stories concerning social justice remember the flip side, Merina said.
"You're taking the point of view that this is a story where some injustice has been done," said Victor Merina, a former reporter for the Los Angeles Times and a senior fellow at the USC Anneberg Institute for Justice and Journalism.
"You have to be the proponent on keeping this kind of story moving," Merina said. Journalists have to be willing to sit on front porches, to build trust, to wade into old documents and old societal norms, and be willing to talk about the issues no one else wants to talk about.
Whether your story is about race and ethnicity or social justice you've got to be willing to spend the time.
CLARIFICATON: Gary Corsair first called the sister of one of the young boys who was arrested in 1949, not Robert Thompson as the article previously stated.
Source : http://www.poynter.org/2004/race-relations-social-justice-writing-it-takes-time/25400/