Sunday, December 9, 2007

Did the KKK Frame Zeigler?

One theory of the murders at the Zeigler Furniture Store is that they were planned and paid for by the KKK in retaliation for Zeigler's getting too cozy with the black community. Dave Starr, the Orange Co. sheriff who retired in 1971 was a known member of the Klan. West Orange Co. including the towns of Apopka and Winter Garden were heavily infested with klan members. According to a PBS documentary, (see the reference below) a Winter Garden Justice of the Peace and a constable were known Klansmen.

Zeigler was one of the few business owners of that time in West Orange Co. who extended credit to blacks. In addition, he was actively engaged in trying to stop the illegal loan sharking that used white owned businesses to make loans to migrant workers at interest rates as high as 500 per cent. Just four months before the murders, Zeigler committed what may have been the ultimate sin: He served as a character witness in the trial of Andrew James, who was a friend of Zeigler's. James had one of the only black owned bars in the area, and had been accused of selling narcotics in his business. The judge who would preside at Zeigler's murder trial less than a year later, Maurice Paul, was the character witness for the man who accused Andrew James. James kept his business which would likely have been used as a source of illegal loans had the trial led to the loss of his 4COP license. Soon after the trial ended, the house of the man who made the allegation against Andrew James was set ablaze in reaction.

Sheriff Dave Starr lived in the tiny town of Oakland which is right next to Winter Garden. Robert Thompson was hired as the police chief of Oakland in the early seventies and played a pivotal role in Zeigler's conviction. His testimony at trial that the blood around Zeigler's stomach wound was wet when he took Zeigler to the hospital (contrary to his written report found years later) helped to convince the jury that Zeigler had shot himself just prior to or after he called police. Thompson had been head of security for former Gov. Claude Kirk, and must have had to take a major pay cut to accept the job of Police Chief in a town of fewer than 1000 people. He quit the job during Zeigler's trial. Important questions for any investigator would be whether the judge, Maurice Paul, and Robert Thompson had known each other before the murders, and whether either one or both were close associates of Dave Starr. Paul had also been employed in state government during the Kirk's term in office according to a book by Phil Finch.

West Orange County was the setting for the murderous rampage against blacks in Ocoee in 1920. Just to the north and west of this area is Lake County where the notorious sheriff, Willis McCall held power from the 1944 until retiring in 1972. He is well known for his shooting of two young black men who had been granted a new trial by the U. S. Supreme Court in 1951 in the rape of a white woman from Groveland, about 15 to 20 miles from Winter Garden. Many believe that the murder of civil rights activists Harry T. Moore and his wife in 1951 was in retribution for Moore's involvement in the case of the four Groveland youths who were accused of the rape. It is also important to note that even in 2004, then Attorney General Charles Crist noted that many people were reluctant to talk to his investigators in the Moore case because of the fear of retribution. As the executive summary to the final report states: "It is also sadly evident that some members of area law enforcement were Klan members and/or sympathizers and may not have supported the FBI’s investigation. The damage caused by that regrettable state of affairs is still evident today, as this investigation concluded that a number of witnesses were reluctant to be completely candid with this investigation for fear of retribution."

To read the Executive Summary of the Harry Moore Investigation, click here.

Click here for a short history of the Ocoee massacre.

For a summary of KKK activity in Florida, click here.

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