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.
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.
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.
* 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.
That line between “martyr” and “terrorist” is often a matter of historical perspective or even accident.
Were the person’s actions justified?
If not justified, were they at least historically significant?
If not historically significant, did they at least inspire some really great songs?
Or, movies?John Brown, abolitionist, father of 20 children, advocate of armed insurrection as a direct means of ending slavery, is just such a figure. Before looking at how his actions influenced history, however, it is instructive to consider how history influenced him.
Born into a devout family opposed to slavery on religious and moral grounds, Brown grew up in a vehemently anti-slavery district of Ohio and, as a young man, began training in New England to become a Congregationalist minister.
When money ran out, he returned to Ohio and began a series of variously successful business ventures and married his first wife, with whom he would have seven children. When his businesses failed, he moved to Pennsylvania, buried his wife, married his second, and started a tannery, which began to founder as one of his sons died and Brown fell ill. He moved his family –- now with more than a dozen children –- back to Ohio, where he was hit hard by the economic crisis of 1839 (PDF link). In 1842, he was declared bankrupt; the following year, four more of his children died of dysentery.
In spite of these setbacks, Brown remained dogged in his pursuit of ventures to get himself out of debt, becoming a seasoned expert among small sheep farmers and acting as a self-appointed crusader for their empowerment against the encroaching interests of manufacturers. While this backfired and Brown remained impoverished into the 1850s (thought not as much as when he was declared bankrupt), it solidified his interest in helping the underdog.
Moral and religious interest in the abolition of slavery had been part of Brown’s upbringing, but it wasn’t until 1855, when five of Brown’s adult sons began sending words of often violent pro-slavery machinations in the Kansas territory, that Brown first became committed to drastic action on behalf of the cause. His strategy wasn’t at first overtly violent, but was rather convinced that the anti-slavery cause could win by the ballot box; over the course of the next year, however, he became convinced that the only sure way of preserve Kansas as a free territory was by “fighting fire with fire” (historical opinion as to the precise extent of the pro-slavery violence in relation to Brown’s later actions is divided).
In 1856, with tensions reaching a boiling point, Brown, four of his sons, and a band of other abolitionists killed five pro-slavery settlers in Franklin County, Kansas in what became known as the Pottawatomie Massacre. No legal retribution was possible or likely; Brown and his party escaped handily (although one of his sons was killed the following August), and Brown spent the next three years using various aliases to travel among abolitionists raising funds to launch an all-out assault on slaveowners back East.
“The crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”
Brown believed his actions would be the start of a lasting insurrection in which slaves would rise up against their owners in an insurrection that would quickly spread to neighboring counties and throughout the South. While violence was expected, it was to be minimized, and, after the initial raid, used only in self-defense.
Twenty-one men, in total, took part in the raid; Brown’s expected hundreds of recruits never materialized. The slave population never got a chance to rise up against their masters, as townspeople promptly began firing on the raiders; by the morning after the start of the raid, the invaders were surrounded by a company of US Marines.* Brown was captured, along with seven of his men; ten were killed, and four escaped.
Tried in Virginia for murder, treason and conspiracy, Brown was convicted on November 2, just weeks after his failed insurrection, and sentenced to be hanged within a month. His often-cited speech in Court in response to this sentence would become a rallying cry for the abolitionist movement:
This court acknowledges, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed here which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament. That teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me, further, to “remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them.” I endeavored to act up to that instruction… Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I submit; so let it be done!
“Make the gallows glorious like the Cross.”
During his last month on Earth, Brown seemed well-aware that he was on his way to be a martyr. Refusing rescue by a supporter who had managed to infiltrate the prison, he wrote letters of valor and conviction which were increasingly picked up by the Northern abolitionst press, and attracted pleas of clemency from sources as removed as Victor Hugo.
Christ-like: The Last Moments of John Brown, by Thomas Hovdenden.
John Brown hanged at Charles Town, Virginia (present-day West Virginia — another thing Virginia lost during the Civil War). This 19th-century drawing is from the Virginia Military Institute archive of the event, which includes eyewitness accounts of soldiers who attended the hanging, including Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.
Hanged in the mid-morning of December 2, 1859, Brown stated ominously: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.”
Brown’s dramatic enactment of an attempted armed insurrection –- even an abortive one –- stoked longstanding Southern fears of slaverebellions, leading the South to reorganize and equip its outdated militias, and the Union to increasingly valorize a man who held, with sheer and utter clarity, the very convictions in which they must needs believe to fight and win the coming War Between the States.
Called a “misguided fanatic” by the man who would lead that war, Brown’s actions nonetheless both hastened the inevitable schism already drawn so dramatically across a nation in which one out of every ten human beings was held in legal bondage, as well as gave moral and spiritual courage to those who would ultimately rise to eradicate it.
Did John Brown draw his sword against slavery and thereby lose his life in vain? And to this I answer ten thousand times, No! No man fails, or can fail, who so grandly gives himself and all he has to a righteous cause. No man, who in his hour of extremest need, when on his way to meet an ignominious death, could so forget himself as to stop and kiss a little child, one of the hated race for whom he was about to die, could by any possibility fail.
Did John Brown fail? Ask Henry A. Wise in whose house less than two years after, a school for the emancipated slaves was taught.
Did John Brown fail? Ask James M. Mason, the author of the inhuman fugitive slave bill, who was cooped up in Fort Warren, as a traitor less than two years from the time that he stood over the prostrate body of John Brown.
Did John Brown fail? Ask Clement C. Vallandingham, one other of the inquisitorial party; for he too went down in the tremendous whirlpool created by the powerful hand of this bold invader. If John Brown did not end the war that ended slavery, he did at least begin the war that ended slavery. If we look over the dates, places and men for which this honor is claimed, we shall find that not Carolina, but Virginia, not Fort Sumter, but Harpers Ferry, and the arsenal, not Col. Anderson, but John Brown, began the war that ended American slavery and made this a free Republic. Until this blow was struck, the prospect for freedom was dim, shadowy and uncertain. The irrepressible conflict was one of words, votes and compromises.
When John Brown stretched forth his arm the sky was cleared. The time for compromises was gone – the armed hosts of freedom stood face to face over the chasm of a broken Union – and the clash of arms was at hand. The South staked all upon getting possession of the Federal Government, and failing to do that, drew the sword of rebellion and thus made her own, and not Brown’s, the lost cause of the century.
Though state authorities had little use for the worldwide clemency bid whose backers included U.S. President Woodrow Wilson — powerless to intervene officially, since the execution was a state matter — Hill walked spryly into his martyrdom. The strange post-mortem career of his totemic ashes is the least of the ways Hill lives on.
His dauntless last message to fellow Wobbly Bill Haywood — “Don’t waste any time mourning. Organize.” — is a permanent fixture on pins and placards among every stripe of left activist. The songs he wrote remain in print — and in performance.
And the Depression-era tribute ballad “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night” can seamlessly serenade ripped-from-the-headlines footage, as a Paul Robeson rendition does in these clips of 1998 protests against then-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.