Justice demanded in unsolved 1946 lynching

MONROE, Ga. – This much is certain: On July 25, 1946, a mob of white gunmen stopped a car carrying a white man and two black couples as it approached a lonely bridge. They dragged the blacks from the car, shot them to death on the banks of the Apalachee River, and melted into the sweltering Georgia countryside.

The sole survivor – the white driver – insisted he could not identify the killers, and nobody was ever prosecuted.

That’s about all anybody agrees upon when the topic of the Moore’s Ford Bridge lynchings comes up, but nearly 60 years later, activists fueled by the recent prosecutions of civil rights-era murders in Mississippi and Alabama are demanding justice in this case, too.

Despite the extraordinary odds, including the deaths of most witnesses and possible perpetrators, members of the Moore’s Ford Memorial Committee say someone must answer for a crime that made national news when it occurred and that still vexes the communities near the killing site.

The 17-member committee, which in the past focused on memorializing the murders, switched course last month and asked District Attorney Ken Wynne to convene a grand jury to seek indictments. Wynne says there is not enough evidence to do so. “Obviously, if there weren’t a need for additional evidence, someone would’ve been charged already,” said Wynne. FBI and Georgia Bureau of Investigation officials agree.

Nevertheless, the committee, comprising black and white members, hopes to encourage anyone who knows anything to speak up when it holds a public forum Friday to discuss the crime. A march to the bridge is planned the next day.

“There is no need for any more investigation. What we need now is prosecution,” said state Rep. Tyrone Brooks, a Democrat who heads the state’s Association of Black Elected Officials.

Four years ago, Brooks listened as the FBI and Georgia Bureau of Investigations briefed government officials on decades of stop-and-start investigations, which included interviews with two men who said they were eyewitnesses and who had waited decades to come forward. The briefing convinced Brooks that investigators had enough evidence to solve what is thought to be the last mass lynching in the United States.

Lynching was constant threat

If there’s one thing that hasn’t much changed here since the Moore’s Ford killings, though, it’s the way different people interpret the evidence, and the way they believe the case should be handled. The differences cut along more than just racial lines, reflecting the conflicts at play in a community where relatives of both victims and alleged victimizers still live as neighbors in rural isolation.

“As a black man, you didn’t have to do anything that bad to get in trouble around here,” said Bobby Howard, who was 6 when the lynchings occurred.

Now a Moore’s Ford committee member, Howard, who is black, said lynching came to be expected if a black man so much as made eye contact with a white woman, or failed to move to the edge of the sidewalk to let whites pass.

“You didn’t even have to talk back to a white man, much less raise your hand against him,” said Howard, who has spent years trying to persuade blacks to tell what they know about Moore’s Ford.

The lynchings weren’t the only ones left unsolved, but they were unusual because there were multiple victims, including two women, and because one victim was a soldier. George Dorsey, 28, had just been honorably discharged after nearly five years overseas. Also killed were Dorsey’s companion, Mae, 24; Roger Malcom, 24; and Malcom’s companion, Dorothy, 20, who was seven months pregnant.

Most agree that it was Dorsey’s military status that prompted then-President Harry S. Truman to order an FBI probe.

Even today, accounts vary as to the killers’ motives. News stories at the time said Malcom was the target, because he had stabbed and wounded a white farmer during a fight a few days earlier. He had just been bailed out of the Monroe jail.

But some locals suspect Dorsey was the target because of rumors he was seeing a local white woman, a theory delved into in a 2003 book about the incident by Laura Wexler, “Fire in a Canebrake,” which also quotes some whites as insisting the killings were motivated by a bootlegging dispute.

Everyone agrees that Dorothy and Mae were killed to prevent them from reporting what had happened.

Witness stonewalled investigators

On the day of the murders, an influential white farmer was driving the two couples home from Monroe. At the wooden Moore’s Ford bridge, in a dip on a dirt road, the car was ambushed. The farmer was not hurt and told investigators he did not recognize any of the 12 to 15 killers, even though they did not wear masks.

It was an example of the stonewalling that investigators say made it impossible to crack the case.

“It’s been 60 years, and I still walk into some black people’s homes and they won’t say a word,” Howard said as he steered his car to one such home, where Malcom’s aunt, Rosa Bell Ingram, lives.

Now 87, she remembers the terror in the black community – a terror that prevented many from attending the victims’ funerals. “Folks were scared. They weren’t talking,” said Ingram, who is still reluctant to discuss it.

“I’d just leave it as it is. I don’t know nothing,” she said when asked if someone should be punished. “They tell me all them people is dead,” she added, referring to the killers. “The feeling I got is they can’t be punished.”

Several states away, Malcom’s son from another relationship, who was 2 when his father died, speaks more freely. Roger Malcom Hayes, who was adopted and taken to Ohio after the murders, says that even if it is too late to prosecute, victims’ families should be paid reparations.

“If they want to make justice, give us what we need,” he said, suggesting that the money should come from local government institutions. Many blacks, as well as the FBI, concluded that such institutions, including local law enforcement, pressured people of both races to keep their mouths shut.

Purported eyewitness comes forward

Faced with frightened or uncooperative witnesses, no physical evidence, and no confessions, the investigation went nowhere until 1991, when Clinton Adams came forward. Adams, the son of poor white sharecroppers, had grown up in the Monroe area and had spent years shifting locations, fearful of retribution if he said what he knew. He decided to talk to the FBI after losing his leg in an accident in 1990.

“I can’t run no more,” he said at the time, explaining his decision to speak out.

Adams, who was 10 in 1946, claimed to have hidden in the woods and watched the killings, but the four men he implicated were dead by 1991. So were the sheriff’s deputies he said had warned him in 1946 to stay quiet.

Adams enjoyed a spate of fame, appearing on the Oprah Winfrey Show and NBC’s “Dateline,” and though his testimony did not solve the crime, activists credit it with spurring investigators to reopen it.

“He really brought the issue back to life,” said Rich Rusk. Like many area residents born after the slayings or not originally from here, Rusk, 58 and white, knew nothing of the lynching until Adams’ statements made news. He was so mortified by the tale that he went to the now-modern concrete bridge spanning the Apalachee River, stared into the muddy water, and decided something had to be done to right past wrongs. A few years later, he founded the Moore’s Ford Memorial Committee.

In 1997, the committee erected a historical marker at the turnoff to the Moore’s Ford bridge, and in 1999 it arranged for Dorsey to get the military honors, complete with a flyover by a World War II plane, that he had never received, during a ceremony in Monroe.

In the meantime, the FBI interviewed another apparent eyewitness who was dying of cancer and who gave them two more names to add to their list of suspects. But like every other possible killer, the men denied involvement, and the witness died soon after.

An FBI official said the agency closed its investigation at that point. A separate investigation by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation remains open, and agent Fred Stephens said leads continue to be pursued.

“At this stage you look at the names of people who might have some information and you have to wonder if these folks are still alive,” he said.

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