Fading echoes

THE BALTIMORE SUN

No one has ever been prosecuted for the last mass lynching in America.

But that's not at all unusual: No national anti-lynch law was ever passed, and state and local authorities seldom did much to investigate lynchings.

As Laura Wexler notes in her new book, Fire in a Canebrake: The Last Mass Lynching in America, there were prosecutions and convictions in less than 1 percent of the 4,700 lynchings between 1880, when records of lynchings were first kept, and 1939, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt created a civil rights unit in the Justice Department.

Wexler, a Baltimore author who is writer-in-residence at the College of Notre Dame in Maryland, evokes in vivid yet restrained detail the lynch-mob murder of two black men and two black women on July 25, 1946, in Walton County, Ga. Their story unfolds like the dark, twisting narrative of a Southern Gothic novel by Carson McCullers or Flannery O'Connor.

Cut down in a volley of gunfire were Roger Malcom, 24, a sharecropper who 11 days earlier had stabbed a white man; Dorothy Dorsey Malcom, 20, Roger's wife; George Dorsey, 28, Dorothy's brother and a veteran of five years in the Army in the South Pacific; and Mae Murray Dorsey, 23, George's wife and "one of the loveliest black women in Walton County."

They were killed late in the afternoon on the river bank at the Moore's Ford Bridge across the Apalachee River. River cane, a bamboo, grew in thick groves, or canebrakes, along the Apalachee where the two couples were killed. When farmers lit fires to clear land, the hollow cane stalks exploded, producing a sound like gunshots - so at least one witness hearing the fatal gunshots described them as sounding like a fire in a canebrake.

The gunshots that killed the Malcoms and the Dorseys echo still in Wexler's book more than a half century later.

The Apalachee is the boundary between Walton and Oconee counties, just west of Athens in northeast Georgia. Moore's Ford, Wexler relates, "was a small patch of wildness in a landscape tamed and cultivated into rows of cotton and corn.

"It was a rare place that wasn't associated with work, a place of small sounds and small secrets: the rustling of birds, the lapping of the river, the footsteps of a person getting away."

No one got away from the Moore's Ford lynching. The bodies lay jumbled along the river bank in Walton County, broken by rifle butts, riddled with bullets and blasted by shotgun pellets. Roger Malcom lay on his back with a noose around his neck at the end of a 12-foot length of rope. He and George Dorsey were tied together, their wrists bound with the same plow line.

The sun was going down when the one-armed coroner, W.J. "Tom" Brown, examined the bodies and said that "roughly 60 shots were fired in all." He probably underestimated the amount of gunfire since there were probably 20 or more shooters.

Brown knew, too, the victims had been shot repeatedly after they'd fallen to the ground. He convened a coroner's jury on the spot and it "promptly issued the verdict that was standard in the wake of a lynching. 'Death at the hands of persons unknown.'" He plucked a .22-caliber slug from one of the bodies and kept it as a souvenir.

People swarmed over the spot the next morning like medieval peasants searching for relics. A college student picked up a tooth that he gave to his girlfriend for her charm bracelet. Wexler found the man but neither the woman nor the tooth.

She first visited Moore's Ford in 1998 when she began work on her book. At the time, she was a writer for the alumni magazine at the University of Georgia in Athens, about a half hour away.

"I remember leaving the highway to go on the road that leads to the bridge and just thinking how desolate it was," she says. "What's interesting about the area is that it's starting to look like everywhere else, in the sense that they're putting up these McMansions or tract homes.

"But there's still quite a bit of undeveloped land back there. So you can get a sense of the distances between things. It was easy to imagine the landscape in 1946 ... the cotton about ready to be harvested, and it being kind of empty because there was not much field work to be done."

The old bridge is gone now, and Highway 78 crosses the Apalachee on a concrete bridge off to the left. The old dirt road is now just weeds and grass and such and on further a woods.

"There's a way in which a landscape does feel haunted by all the things you know happened," she says. "And of course all the things that happened you don't know about."

A man named Robert Howard led her to the bridge.

"He's the black man who helped me quite a bit," she says. "That first day he said to me, 'I know there are people still alive who were in that lynch mob. I want justice.'"

Howard was the representative of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference on the Moore's Ford Memorial Committee, formed in the summer of spring of 1997 to commemorate the victims and promote racial harmony.

The committee members cleaned up cemeteries where the victims lay buried and placed tombstones on their unmarked graves. And they got a historical marker erected near the site of the lynching, one of only three such memorials believed to exist in America.

Wexler got on the story after she saw a news article about the committee when it cleared the cemetery where Mae Murray Dorsey was buried.

"This incident, when I heard of it, my first instinct was to try to solve it," she says. "Here are still people living who did this and have gone free. To me, that's answer enough for anybody who says, why are we still talking about this? Well, we're still talking about it because it still matters. And because we didn't talk about it enough when it happened."

Long-standing concern

She says she'd been concerned about race in America for years before this. She grew up in Cockeysville, graduated from Dulaney High School and went on to Penn State University, where she joined a literary nonfiction workshop led by Toby Thompson, an associate professor of English who'd written Positively Main Street, about the childhood of Bob Dylan, and lots of other stuff.

"On a whim, I wrote a letter to Mumia Abu Jamal, who was then on death row in Huntingdon, Pa., which was about an hour and a half from State College, and I asked if I could come visit him. And he said I could."

Mumia Abu Jamal, convicted of killing a Philadelphia policeman, was probably the most famous inmate facing capital punishment in America.

"So," she says, "I had the unforgettable experience, both as a person and a journalist, of going to death row when I was 19 and interviewing Mumia Abu Jamal, who was, is, an incredible thinker and a writer himself. To say it was a formative experience for me is not to overstate the case."

After graduating from Penn State in 1993, she did volunteer work on a Sioux reservation before returning to Baltimore. She freelanced for the City Paper and worked on the Towson Times, then headed off to the University of Kansas where she earned a master's degree in creative writing in 1997. She went to work at the University of Georgia, then quit to do the Moore's Ford book.

"I knew I was going to write about race," she says. "I didn't think I would write a book so soon. I thought I would write a book after I was 30."

She's 31 and, of course, her book is published. She lives in a handsomely renovated townhouse on Calvert Street in Charles Village and she's now a senior editor of Style magazine.

"I find it fascinating," she says, "when people say to me why are you interested in race, as though only black people should be interested in race in America. I almost don't know how to answer that question because it's like saying why are you breathing?

"To me it's the issue in America. I know [W.E.B.] DuBois said the problem of America in the 20th century is the problem of the color line. I find it's going to be the same problem for the 21st century, too. I just feel it's the most important issue in America."

Interest in lynchings

Her book has come out when there is a renewed interest lynching in America, sparked in part by James Allen's collection of postcard photographs of victims, which drew 170,000 visitors to an exhibition that just closed at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta.

"I started this book in 1998," she says. "I didn't know any other books that were coming out. The history of lynching is still so veiled. We're filling it in stone by stone, point by point. I hope we continue to."

The Moore's Ford Lynching took place against the backdrop of a campaign for governor won by the white supremacist Eugene Talmadge. African-American - and many white - tenant farmers and sharecroppers lived in a kind of peonage of perpetual debt. The dank atmosphere of Walton County was charged with murmurs and rumors of forbidden interracial sexuality among the killers and the killed. The lynching seemed inevitable when Roger Malcom stabbed Barnette Hester, the mild-mannered white landowner he worked for, in a burst of fury during an argument with Dorothy. Hester recovered and lived until 1982. But Malcom and the others died.

"There was a national outcry," Wexler says. "A coalition was building between the NAACP and liberal and labor groups, which were at their peaks. But it wasn't sustained."

She compared the Moore's Ford Lynching with the murder of teen-ager Emmett Till nine years later in Mississsippi, the subject of a recent PBS documentary.

"Emmett Till became something that stirred up rage, and there was somewhere to put it," she says. "There was a sense there was more anger than fear. In Walton County, Ga., there was more fear than anger. And of course fear is not an activist emotion."

President Truman expressed alarm, addressed the NAACP, created a Commission on Civil Rights and within two years ordered the armed forces desegregated. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover dispatched a platoon of agents to Georgia in what seems to have been an honest effort to solve the murders.

Wexler toted up the results: "Twenty-five FBI agents, four months of investigations, 2,790 people interviewed, 106 people summoned before the grand jury - and then no indictments."

During her research, Wexler obtained a summary of the FBI report and annotated it with a fringe of multicolored Post-It notes. But the FBI turned down her request for the 10,000 pages of the full report on the grounds that "it might one day jeopardize the potential for Georgia to prosecute the lynchers."

But she doesn't believe we'll ever know who fired the shots in the clearing near Moore's Ford Bridge.

"And I wonder if that unanswered question," she writes at the end of her book, "that hole where the center should be, isn't the truest representation of race in America."

Linda Lemonds, the daughter of Barnette Hester, the farmer who was stabbed, told Wexler: "These people committed a murder, and I don't know that they ever realized it was a bad thing. At the time they had no remorse. The whole community let it go by.

"I know it was a great wrong."

Laura Wexler

What: Lecture and book signing

When: Feb. 20, at 7 p.m.

Where: LeClerc Auditorium, College of Notre Dame, 4701 N. Charles St.

Admission: Free

Call: 410-532-5307

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