Fading echoes

Baltimore writer Laura Wexler chases ghosts of America's last mass lynching.

February 08, 2003|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

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.

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