The secret behind America’s last mass lynching has been concealed for the better part of a century, but now civil rights activists say they are closer than ever to the revelation.
A federal appeals court will decide whether to shed light on the horrific killings known as the Moore’s Ford lynching, a decision it has been mulling for three months.
The answer to who killed four young black people at Georgia’s Moore’s Ford Bridge in 1946 may lie buried in the National Archives, where transcripts of grand jury hearings long thought lost were discovered. Activists and historians want to make them public, while the government, looking to keep grand jury proceedings sacrosanct, would prefer they stay in the dark.
“This has been my longest case in my civil rights career, and it has been the most difficult and dangerous, too,” said Tyrone Brooks, 74, an early member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and longtime Georgia state lawmaker. “The off-and-on nature of it, the threats against your life, the protection you’ve needed at times, it’s been tough.”
The decision as to whether the public shall see the grand jury transcripts lays before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta, which has had the case for a year.
Time and history are on the public’s side, said Joseph J. Bell Jr., the New Jersey lawyer who has argued for years on behalf of a group of historians seeking the records.
“There is no known active investigation nor any realistic probability that any person will ever be charged with the crime in connection with the Moore’s Ford lynching,” Mr. Bell told the 11th Circuit’s en banc judges, or the entire bench, in October.
“Moreover, if any witnesses are still alive, they would likely be approximately age 90 or older if they were around age 20 in 1946,” Mr. Bell told the court. “As one of the most historically significant and unsolved crimes of racial hatred and violence, the Moore’s Ford grand jury transcripts meet the test of historical significance and are the last remaining unexamined portion of the historical record.”
Mr. Bell cited case law that supports the claim of historical significance and notes some famous examples of grand jury material made public: Alger Hiss, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Jimmy Hoffa and President Richard M. Nixon.
Should the appeals court side with the government, it would be reversing earlier rulings in favor of sunshine from a federal district judge and an 11th Circuit panel that ruled 2-1 in the petitioners’ favor in February 2019.
The grisly events
The grisly events occurred near the span over the Apalachee River that connects Walton and Oconee counties, east of Atlanta. Late in the afternoon of July 25, 1946, four black people — two sharecroppers and their wives — were forced out of a car, tied to a tree and gunned down by an armed mob of more than 20 white people.
The victims were Roger Malcom; his pregnant common-law wife, Dorothy Malcom; her brother, George W. Dorsey; and his common-law wife, Mae Murray Dorsey. Roger Malcom suffered a shotgun blast fired point-blank in his face.
“He was barely recognizable; they said his face looked like shredded wheat,” Mr. Bell said.
In many ways, the modern civil rights movement stems from the horror of what became known as the Moore’s Ford lynchings. National outrage over the lynchings spurred President Truman to form the first Presidential Committee on Civil Rights, and for the first time, FBI agents were brought in to investigate a race crime in the Deep South.
“If you trace them and connect the dots, they all come back to the Moore’s Ford massacre that day,” Mr. Brooks said. “It’s not as famous as the bridge in Selma, but there were no media on the Moore’s Ford bridge.”
If mystery still shrouds the triggermen, the general outline of what happened is clear.
In early July, Roger Malcom, 24, allegedly stabbed a white man in an argument over Dorothy Malcom. At the time of the stabbing, Roger Malcom and some of his relatives, including Dorothy Malcolm’s brother, James Dorsey, had been hired as sharecroppers by J. Loy Harrison. James Dorsey was an Army veteran just a few months returned from a decorated five-year World War II campaign in North Africa and the Pacific theater.
While Malcom languished in jail in Walton County, Georgians went to the polls to elect a governor in a heated, divisive primary between the incumbent, arch segregationist Democrat Herman Talmadge, and James Carmichael, who represented a more progressive element of the Democratic Party.
At the time, Georgia had “whites only” primaries, but in April 1946 the Supreme Court ruled those were unconstitutional, embittering Talmadge’s supporters who managed to declare him the winner because he won the most counties, even though Carmichael beat him by some 15,000 votes overall.
“1946 was a watershed year in voting rights for African Americans, and in that time right there, with Herman Talmadge, that’s when the Klan really rose up to try to be the strongmen who would block the black vote,” Mr. Brooks said.
During that raw, charged primary aftermath, Malcom’s bail was reduced to $500 and Harrison pledged his farm as collateral. He took James and Mae Murray Dorsey with him in his car when he went to pick up Malcom.
But Harrison, who was suspected of connections with the local Ku Klux Klan, did not drive directly home after springing Malcom. Instead, he made several stops around Monroe, talking with different men, and then took a meandering route before arriving at the Moore’s Ford Bridge, according to Laura Wexler, a historian whose book “Fire in the Canebrake” examines the lynching.
“The possibilities with Harrison run the gamut from ‘he knew’ to he was the mastermind,” said Ms. Wexler, who described the farmer as an occasional criminal who had been involved in bootlegging during Prohibition. “Like so many things, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle.”
The group never made it across. On the bridge they were confronted by the armed but unmasked mob, which dragged the black passengers out of the car. One of the women recognized a member of the mob, according to some accounts, which prompted the apparent leader to say, “Get that woman over here. She knows too much.”
“He was a big man who dressed mighty proud in a double-breasted brown suit,” Harrison has been quoted as saying.
The four victims were lashed to a large oak tree and, in separate volleys, riddled with at least 60 shots. The killers tossed the mangled bodies toward the river and left, leaving the crime scene unsupervised for more than a day and allowing people to comb it over and steal macabre “souvenirs” as word of the murders spread.
No felony charges
Much of the country was aghast at such a cold-blooded crime. In response to the outrage, President Truman formed his committee and drafted a Civil Rights Act that Southern Democrats would block in Congress for decades. FBI agents descended on the two Georgia counties, interviewing nearly 3,000 people, or more than half their total population at the time.
A federal grand jury convened and, for two weeks, the group of 23 jurors — which included two black jurors at times not permitted to sit with the white jurors — heard testimony from more than 100 people. Mr. Harrison spent six hours testifying and emerged “sweating profusely,” according to contemporary accounts.
Though it seemed obvious that a conspiracy had been afoot to lynch the victims, and though there were strong hints that local or state law enforcement officials had been involved in it, the grand jury returned just one indictment — for perjury. No one was ever charged with a felony in connection to the lynching.
The case has not remained dormant since 1946. SCLC leaders, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., asked Mr. Brooks to travel to Monroe and meet with the undertaker there in March 1968, an assignment Mr. Brooks, then 22, did not want because he wanted to travel to Memphis, Tennessee, with the SCLC leadership.
Instead, for more than half a century, he has found himself consumed by the pursuit of justice for the Malcoms and Dorseys.
Other prominent civil rights activists also have sought to draw attention to Moore’s Ford. Ralph Abernathy, a close companion of King’s, once told a gathering in Walton that he and King intended to travel there right after Memphis, where King was assassinated.
In *1999, at Mr. Brooks’ urging, Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes officially reopened the probe, assigning a team of Georgia Bureau of Investigation detectives to delve into it, and a year later the Moore’s Ford Movement, of which Mr. Brooks is a founding member, was established.
The Georgia detectives were soon joined by FBI agents when the bureau reopened its investigation in 2006. The teams of investigators searched a farm and made a handful of other moves reportedly seeking evidence, but no grand jury was empaneled and, again, no arrests were made. By January 2018, both agencies had formally closed their new investigations, but Mr. Brooks said the strange part occurred during the Obama administration.
For those eight years, Mr. Brooks said he and other people seeking answers to the lynchings said they felt the eyes and pressure of federal agents on them, that from 2009 to 2016, he sensed no support.
“Just the other day a friend of mine asked if I saw the irony in how things were for those eight years and how things kind of got better after the 2016 election, and I told him that had not been lost on me,” Mr. Brooks said.
Mr. Bell said he wrote personally to Attorneys General Eric H. Holder Jr. and Loretta E. Lynch but never got a response.
During the re-investigations, the mass lynching caught the attention of some scholars, among them the late *Anthony Pitch. In 2016, Mr. Pitch published “The Last Lynching,” his fresh look at what happened that day — and what didn’t. Pitch’s research refuted, for instance, a legend Mr. Brooks and others still hold to be true, that after Dorothy Malcom’s death her killers cut her unborn child from her body.
While researching his book, Pitch learned about the grand jury transcripts, and while leading a Washington history tour about Lincoln’s last day, Pitch met Mr. Bell, in town for an American Bar Association conference.
The two became friends and soon Mr. Bell had taken on the pro bono task of bringing the Moore’s Ford Bridge lynching grand jury transcripts to light.
At first, officials said the transcripts had been lost in an Athens, Georgia, flood in 1972, and the case was dismissed without prejudice.
But the transcripts weren’t lost. It turns out they had been in a mislabeled box at a National Archives center in Maryland where Pitch was a frequent visitor. Exactly how they were discovered is a secret Pitch, who died last year at 80, took to his grave.
“Honestly, I really am sorry, but I can’t tell you that until I get a hold of them,” he told The Toledo Blade in a phone interview in June. “A lot of people ask me that question, and it would jeopardize my future investigation.”
Mr. Bell refiled his motion, and in 2017 a federal court in Macon ruled the transcripts should be made public.
The government declined to accept that judgment. Although there are different opinions among Moore’s Ford Movement members about why, Mr. Bell is convinced federal attorneys see the case strictly in terms of preserving the secrecy and integrity of grand jury investigations.
The Department of Justice did not respond to a request for an interview or statement about Moore’s Ford and the 11th Circuit, but Mr. Bell said all the department lawyers he has dealt with on the case have been flawless in terms of their professionalism and courtesy.
When Pitch died, his widow, Marion, stepped in to take his place as a petitioner, and Ms. Wexler joined the suit last year.
As for the reasons why the government has refused to yield, Mr. Brooks is not so quick to give it the benefit of the doubt.
He is convinced, from alleged eyewitness testimony and his work on the case, that if there are names in the grand jury transcripts, some of them will be familiar, the names of families who have had careers in public office or law enforcement in the Peach State.
“The government is going to extremes to keep us from hearing the truth about what happened in that Moore’s Ford Bridge massacre and there’s a reason for that,” he said. “It would be like the perpetrators calling out from the grave.”
(* Correction: A previous version of the story incorrectly identified Anthony Pitch and the year of two events. The story has been updated.)
• James Varney can be reached at email@example.com.
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