Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried thanked a group of Plantation students Wednesday for their activism surrounding criminal justice and presented them with a proclamation declaring their "shining example of citizen involvement in government for the people."
The middle school students played a role in securing pardons for the 'Groveland Four,' four black men who were shot and/or imprisoned for much of their lives after being falsely accused of raping a white woman in central Florida in 1949. The students educated others about the case and contacted state lawmakers.
"What they were able to do when they put their voices into something, they were able to make an impact," Fried said.
Beginning in 1951, the murky case endured an appeal to U.S. Supreme Court, a re-trial and questions surrounding the validity of evidence. State legislators issued an apology in 2017 to the men, Ernest Thomas, Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin and Samuel Shepherd, and their families, acknowledging them as "victims of racial hatred." Still, state officials waited to officially clear their names.
In January of this year, they were posthumously pardoned by Gov. Ron DeSantis and cabinet members - 70 years after the alleged crime.
Fried thanked one student in particular: seventh-grader Ben Polsky.
Polsky, 12, was in fourth grade when he read a book about the Groveland Four called "Devil In The Grove," by Gilbert King. He was inspired by a class assignment and decided to write his own book for kids about the men's case, with help from his mom. He titled it "Re-Righting History: The Groveland Boys."
"I didn't think that it could cause any change until I realized that a kid writing a book, it can really cause some serious leverage," Polsky said. "And it was just amazing and life-changing."
He then worked with his sixth grade social studies teacher at Seminole Middle to get the more than 1,200 students in the school to send postcards to state lawmakers in Tallahassee, asking them to pardon the Groveland Four. All-in-all Polsky would help send more than 2,000 postcards.
"We talked about activism, how important it is that their voices are heard," Seminole Middle Teacher Susan Fried said. "They restore my faith in humanity!"
Her students and Polsky also worked to support the Groveland Four's pardon with another Broward County activist, Josh Venkataraman. Venkataraman started the petition on Change.org to Fmr. Governor Rick Scott's administration that called for the men' to receive justice.
Susan Fried said she remembers feeling incredulous the day the Groveland Four did recieve posthumous pardons, on Jan. 11 2019.
"Speechless," she said. "Like, It's about time!"
Once the men were pardoned, Polsky and his classmates at Seminole Middle sent follow-up thank-you postcards to lawmakers. And while Polsky is not sure what issue he wants to advocate for next, he said he hopes to become a lawyer someday.
"Really any kind of law," Polsky said. "You have to bring justice to everything, no matter how big or small it is."