Wednesday, February 28, 2018

No Witnesses? No Suspects? Cold Case

"We want to perfect the record for history's sake, to make sure this case is never forgotten."
"Our resolve is as strong as it's ever been."
Tyrone Brooks, veteran civil rights activist, former Georgia lawmaker

"Unfortunately, when these histories divide [variant accounts by opposing white and black communities], what you get is a hole in the centre where the truth should be."
"To me, the closure of the case with nobody held accountable is not surprising. I think it's a demonstration of the power of race to distort even the best intentions to get at the truth."
Laura Wexler, author, Fire in a Canebrake: The Last Mass Lynching in America

"The reason this is so important is that we're still facing all this racial conflict, and acknowledgement is the only real key to healing."
"You've got to acknowledge that the wound is there, and that hasn't happened here."
Janis McDonald, co-director, Cold Case Justice Initiative, Syracuse University College of Law
Loy Harrison (left), a witness to the Moore’s Ford murders, shows then-Sheriff J.M. Bond of Oconee County how a mob of white men bound the hands of two black men together before shooting them and their wives to death near Monroe, Ga., July 25, 1946. Authorities suspected that Harrison was complicit in the crime. (Associated Press Photo)

In the 1990s law enforcement re-opened a cold case. People came forward to promise new information. Investigators concluded, however, they were unable to prosecute anyone on the basis of what had been revealed. Then in June of 2000, then-governor Ray Barnes got involved to order the Georgia Bureau of Investigation once again to reopen the case.

The redacted case file was made public when the investigation closed that January. The file included interviews, whatever leads had been followed, along with case summaries and press clippings. Still to no avail. Whatever efforts were brought to bear came to nought. When the investigation was closed yet again, Tyrone Brooks said he meant to continue to keep the case alive. Since 2005 he has helped organize a re-enactment of the event.

As long as the case remains unsolved, he intends to continue to raise public awareness of that very fact. He had himself become involved in the extraordinary issue of a very public racist atrocity having occurred with no closure, no justice, no explanation why tracking those who were guilty of the crime has been so evasive, leading to frustrating inconclusiveness. Martin Luther King Jr. had tasked him to become involved in 1969.

The event in question was the violent death by armed mob action of four sharecroppers in 1946 Georgia. Four young people in their mid-20s, two couples, Roger and Dorothy Malcom and George and Mae Murray Dorsey. Civil rights activists, journalists, students, cold case groups and historians have all over the years travelled to the site of the murder where a white mob killed four blacks and no one has been held to account.
A road marker along Hwy. 78 in Walton County memorializes the murders at Moore’s Ford near Monroe. The area is the site of a 1946 lynching of two black couples. (JOHN AMIS / SPECIAL)

Moore's Ford Bridge overlooking the Apalachee River is about 80 kilometres east of Atlanta. The mob, estimated at between 20 to 25 (some accounts put it at 40) people, stopped a vehicle carrying the four young people, dragged them from the vehicle, took them to the riverbank and shot them repeatedly, killing them. Roger Malcom, then 24, had been put in jail after he had accused Barnett Hester, white, of having sex with his wife.

He was jailed because he stabbed Hester during their argument, injuring him. Along came a white farmer, Loy Harrison, to pay the $600 bail for Malcom on July 25, 1946. Harrison drove the two young couples home, and it was while they were on their way that the mob stopped them. The mob, Harrison told investigators later, ambushed his vehicle. He was himself unharmed, and there was no one in the mob he could identify.

It was revealed through an FBI report that the farmer was a former Ku Klux Klansman and just incidentally a bootlegger. The investigation that commenced interviewed dozens of possible suspects some of whom were part of Hester's extended family, his friends, his neighbours, but failed to indict anyone in its six months of enquiry. In a small town, everyone tends to know everyone else.

Malcom was incarcerated in that small town. Harrison, a former member of the most virulently violent racist group in America, out of the goodness of his heart, paid $600 (which no doubt was calculated to be returned to him after the murders) to have a black man accused of stabbing a white man released. And to advance further his virtuous morality, offered to drive him, along with three other black people to their home.

When the mob advanced on Harrison's vehicle, he recognized no one he could name to investigators. Untouched himself, and witness to the murders, there was mention that he was a suspect as having organized or helped to organize the murders. When Laura Wexler interviewed people in the town as background research to a book she wrote of the event, she described different versions of circumstances related to the murders.

Alienation between black and white then and now so complete that their opposing perspectives served and continues to serve not justice and the law of the land and human morality by an unforgivably inbred distrust and malice stultifying the normalcy of people as neighbours living together in the harmony of tolerance, and in the final analysis content to overlook the savage killing of human beings because of the polarizing colour of their skin.

“You can’t forget something that’s buried in your mind. I was there. I know what happened.”
Clint Adams with his wife, Retha, at their home in Winder. Adams is the only known living witness to the Moore’s Ford lynching. He was 10-years-old when he says he and a friend saw a mob shoot two African American couples in what became the nation’s last mass lynching. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

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