A quadruple lynching in rural Georgia on this date in 1946 shocked America.
These murders of two African-American couples near Moore’s Ford Bridge are described even to this day as America’s last unresolved mass lynching; that dubious milestone distinction also forms the subtitle of Laura Wexler’s Fire in the Canebrake, a 2004 book about the incident.
Just last year — 2015 — the FBI was reported to be investigating the Moore’s Ford lynching anew.
SixtySeventy years on, it’s still just possible that a perpetrator or two remains alive who might be brought to book … provided the curtain of silence Walton County drew around itself so long ago can finally be lifted.
The victims of the lynching were the Dorseys (George and Mae) and the Malcoms (Roger and Dorothy), black sharecroppers employed by a farmer named J. Loy Harrison. Roger Malcom had been clapped in jail in Monroe, Ga., for stabbing a white man; on the day of the lynching, Harrison drove Dorothy Malcom and the Dorseys to Monroe, where he posted bail for Roger.
Just why Harrison did this appears to be one of the many mysteries of Moore’s Ford Bridge. Harrison was a Klansman, so one possible inference is that he was complicit in the events that were about to transpire; however, as Wexler notes, this bailing-out “favor” would not have been at all unusual for a Walton County plantation owner to do for his help.
[L]ike many large landowners in Georgia in 1946, he was perpetually in need of more help than [his sharecropping] tenants could provide. There were few prospects in the immediate community; as in much of the rural South, the area surrounding Loy Harrison’s farm had shrunk massively in population … Without a sufficient supply of “free” workers to fill his needs, Loy Harrison often did … pay off a prisoner’s fine, or post his bond, and let him work off the debt on his farm.
Loy Harrison was far from unusual in that respect. Large landowners all over the rural South, faced with both war-induced and urban migration, used the local jail as a labor pool. And often the local sheriffs and city police made sure the pool was stocked. They’d lock black people up on a Saturday night on minor– or trumped-up — charges, such as gambling, possession of liquor, or public drunkenness. When a landowner came to the jail on Monday morning to pay a prisoner’s fine, the police claimed part of it for making the arrest, the jailer claimed part of it for “turning the key,” and the landlord took hom a cheap, reliable worker who was bound to him until his debt was paid. … The practice of landowners buying prisoners — particularly black prisoners — out of jail was so common in Walton and Oconee counties that it had its own slogan. “If you keep yourself out of the grave,” landlords told their black tenants, “I’ll keep you off the chain gang.”
Returning from Monroe with his four sharecroppers in tow, Harrison was stopped near the bridge by a gang of armed white men — men that Harrison would later tell investigators he did not recognize, although it was 5:30 p.m. on a summer’s evening and nobody was wearing a disguise.
“A big man who was dressed mighty proud in a double-breasted brown suit was giving the orders,” reported Harrison, who is the best we’re going to do for an eyewitness. “He pointed to Roger and said, ‘We want that nigger.’ Then he pointed to George Dorsey, my nigger, and said, ‘We want you too, Charlie.’ I said, ‘His name ain’t Charlie, he’s George.’ Someone said ‘Keep your damned big mouth shut. This ain’t your party.'”
The “party” entailed forcing all four black men and women — whatever their names were — out of Harrison’s car, lining them up in front of an ad hoc firing squad, and on the count of three, gunning them all down. That night, all four corpses would be found riddled with bullets (the coroner estimated some 60 gunshots had been fired in all) and strewn near the bridge. Dorothy Malcom was five months pregnant.
There are now annual re-enactments of this notorious lynching; here’s another from 2007. When the tradition began in 2005, whites were unwilling to participate and so the first instance was staged with an all-black cast — the lynchers donning white masks.
By the 1940s, Judge Lynch’s gavel did not fall nearly so often as it once had; these mob executions which had once gone abroad with such numbing frequency now took place only sporadically, about once, twice, or thrice per year* in all of the United States.
So the mass murder of four people in a single go at such a late date shook the country. NBC news headlined the event with unconcealed disgust:
140 million Americans were disgraced late yesterday, humiliated in their own eyes and in the eyes of the world by one of the most vicious lynchings to stain our national record. A gang of armed and degenerate, poor whites, waylaid a Negro man and another man and their wives on a country road 40 miles from Atlanta. The brief and sadistic orgy ended in the bodies being riddled by 60 bullets.
Library of Congress image of Roger and Dorothy Malcom’s funeral.
Whether or not the lynchers anticipated this wave of national attention, they were ready to handle it. FBI officials dispatched by President Harry S Truman were systematically stonewalled; a suspect list as long as your arm (55 names!) went nowhere because, in the words of a Georgia patrolman, “the best people in town won’t talk.” And that really does mean the best people; one lead the FBI pursued into the usual cul-de-sac was that the white supremacist ex-governor Eugene Talmadge actually sanctioned the lynchings as an electoral ploy during a hard-fought 1946 campaign to regain his office.
The best folks’ silence — and the dire warning issued by their fusillades into the Dorseys and the Malcoms — stopped the mouths of everyone else, too. A federal $12,500 reward went begging.
Robeson Tells Truman: Do Something About Lynchings Or Negroes Will
Paul Robeson, Negro baritone, spearhead of the American Crusade to End Lynching, said yesterday after a White House visit that he had told the President that if the Government did not do something to curb lynching, “the Negroes would.”
To this statement, Robeson said, the President took sharp exception. The President, he said, remarked that it sounded like a threat. Robeson told newspaper men he assured the President it was not a threat, merely a statement of fact about the temper of the Negro people …
When he was asked whether he was a Communist, Robeson described himself as “violently anti-Fascist.” He said he had opposed Fascism in other countries and saw no reason why he should not oppose Fascism in the United States.
–Philadelphia Tribune, Sept. 24, 1946 (Via)
While investigators were spinning their wheels, activists catalyzed by the Moore’s Ford horror were leaping into action. Singer-activist Paul Robeson launched the American Crusade to End Lynching in response to this event, and led a delegation to the White House. In a combative meeting with President Truman, he demanded stronger federal action.
Truman, like many politicians had before, voiced sympathy but demurred as to tangible remedies: the time was forever not right to push such politically treacherous legislation.†
Robeson replied firmly that if the government would not act to protect black lives, “the Negroes would.” Truman affected great umbrage at this threat to law and order and had no time for Robeson’s describing lynch law as a human rights abuse of the sort that the U.S. had only just finished prosecuting at Nuremberg.
The feds weren’t interested in putting the screws to lynching. But they were definitely interested in putting the screws to Paul Robeson.
The Communist Robeson, whose impossibly gorgeous voice we have previously featured in hymns to leftist martyrs John Brown and Joe Hill, was even then being investigated as a subversive by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. In time, Robeson’s passport would be revoked in part because he made bold while abroad to denounce racial injustice in the United States.
Come 1956, he was hailed before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
This audio is abridged; a more complete transcript can be read here.
No degree of dignity and self-possession in these inquisitions could avail Robeson, who not only did not regain his passport but was gradually levered out of America’s mainstream cultural life as punishment for his politics. He even remained estranged from the rising civil rights movement because his unwillingness to disavow his radical affiliations left him politically radioactive in those red-baiting days.
By the 1960s, the lynchings were a dead letter to those who were supposed to investigate them — just as the lynchers intended. Nobody had ever come close to being indicted. Robeson’s Crusade had gone by the wayside.
But they were not forgotten.
A young man named Bobby Howard, who was a five-year-old child in Walton County at the time the Dorseys and the Malcoms were gunned down, grew up to take an impolitic (not to mention dangerous) interest in the crime; he even pitched an investigation personally to Martin Luther King, Jr. shortly before the latter’s assassination.
All these years later, Howard remains the diligent custodian of the lynching’s memory, and he founded the Moore’s Ford Memorial Committee which among other things has established a historical marker near the site.
* In fact, there have never been so many as four recognized lynchings in any single calendar year in the United States since 1946.
** Talmadge’s 1946 gubernatorial campaign was demagoguing a 1944 Supreme Court decision that gave black voters access to racially desegregated primary elections. Talmadge would eventually win a Bush-v.-Gore-esque poll in which he lost the primary vote but won the county electors that at the time decided the race. (Talmadge carried Walton County by 78 votes.) Having done all that, he then dropped dead in December before he could take office and bequeathed his state — which had never thought to legislate the succession for this particular scenario — a constitutional crisis.
† All part of the great sausage-making of governance: Truman had met with a more moderate NAACP delegation a few days prior and set up one of those blue-ribbon commissions name of the President’s Committee on Civil Rights. Its manifold business affiliations and scanty deliverables were both considerably more welcome in Washington than was Robeson. See Penny Von Eschen’s Race against Empire: Black Americans and Anticolonialism, 1937-1957.