Strange fruit

The true story of the last mass lynching in America is a chilling whodunit, but the legacy of vigilante attacks on blacks continues beyond the history books.

Published January 29, 2003 8:05PM (EST)

The grotesque image of a black human figure suspended from a tree might be matched in its horror and inhumanity by only one other vestige of American memory: a horde of ecstatic white faces, usually set against the black of night, gathered beneath the body. Ordinary folks traveled miles to witness a lynching, sometimes posing for keepsake photographs that they might turn into postcards to send to friends. But pictures were the gentlest of souvenirs. Often men, women and children, businessmen, farmers and policemen scrambled for the victim's carved-off genitals or for an ear or a finger. If they'd arrived too late for body parts, some settled for the bough of the lynching tree or a bit of bloodstained rope.

The spectacular reality of lynching and the evidence it offered of white Southerners' thirst for murdering their black neighbors were revelations for a young W.E.B. DuBois living in Georgia in 1899. According to Phillip Dray in his magisterial history "At the Hands of Persons Unknown," "Lynching was simply the most sensational manifestation of an animosity for black people that resided at a deeper level among whites than [DuBois] had previously thought, and was ingrained in all of white society." DuBois had just learned that a man's knuckles were for sale in an Atlanta grocer's window.

And these are the details we know. The Tuskegee Institute, which has maintained lynching archives since 1882, estimates that 3,417 lynchings of blacks and 1,291 lynchings of whites have taken place in the United States. Ida B. Wells-Barnett, the first anti-lynching crusader, suggests that as many as 10,000 blacks have been lynched since the Civil War. No one can be sure. It's not as though lynchers across America kept a running tab of their victims.

Just as the act of lynching -- and the display of those grisly trophies -- served as a terrifying public warning to blacks to stay in their place, the collective nature of the ritual acted to obscure individual responsibility for the act. "The coroner's inevitable verdict, 'Death at the hands of persons unknown,'" Dray writes, "affirmed the public's tacit complicity: no persons had committed a crime, because the lynching had been an expression of the community's will." Even though newspaper headlines blared news of lynchings when they occurred, surprisingly few clues remained for law enforcement officials or reporters to investigate. (Sometimes the perpetrators, shadowy regulators of the Southern "code of honor," would simply be referred to in print as "determined men.") The fear generated by such acts of terrorism rendered black witnesses silent and tangled white townspeople in a web of endless lies. Of course, at the turn of the century, no one cared about apprehending the murderers -- and, moreover, the local sheriff was sometimes one of them.

Similar conditions existed as late as 1946, in Walton County, Ga., when four blacks were shot to death at the Moore's Ford bridge. Even with the efforts of Walter White's relatively influential NAACP, a cavalcade of FBI agents, the demand of newspaper editorial pages nationwide and the weight of President Truman's mandate, the "determined men" were not identified immediately. But as Laura Wexler expertly reveals in her new book, "Fire in a Canebrake: The Last Mass Lynching in America," witnesses from this small, rural county slowly emerged -- some stepping forward as late as 1991. That the victims' families came close to getting justice for their loved ones' deaths makes the Moore's Ford tragedy unique. The fact that the truth took over 40 years to surface reaffirms how a lynching -- even in the second half of the 20th century -- could terrorize a community into enduring silence.

The black man at the center of the Walton County lynching was in fact guilty of a crime. A sharecropper named Roger Malcom was arguing with his wife, Dorothy, and threatening her with a knife when Barnette Hester, owner of the land Malcolm worked, intervened. Malcom, drunk and belligerent, also suspected his wife of having an affair with Hester (otherwise, why would he, a white man, defend her, a black woman?). In the end, Malcolm stabbed Hester and went to jail.

As the town waited to see if Hester would survive the attack, the plot to lynch Roger Malcom took form. Hester's health turned the corner. Days later, Malcom received a lesser charge of attempted murder and bail was set. Dorothy Malcom, her brother George Dorsey and his wife, Mae, begged another landowner, Loy Harrison, to pay Roger Malcom's bail in exchange for work. It was on their way back to Harrison's farm that their car was overtaken and the Malcoms and the Dorseys were brutally killed. Harrison's life was spared.

There's much more to the real story behind these lynchings, though, and Wexler's telling has all the elements of a horrific Southern mystery. What makes "Fire in a Canebrake" most compelling, however, is Wexler's detached sensibility. In effect, she reports the details of the lynching with surprisingly little sentimentality, an admirable accomplishment for a writer describing "a murder so extreme that it would become an icon of postwar violence, a symbol of the chasm between the promise of democracy and the reality of life for black people in America in 1946." Wexler, appropriately I think, lets the crime speak for itself.

If Malcom was the one the lynch mob wanted, why did they kill all four blacks in the car? The white crowd's utter disregard for black life might not have been the only reason why. George Dorsey, a handsome soldier who'd just returned from the war, had been seen around town with white women. As Dray explains, "The anxiety over interracial sex was so great, it fostered the related notion that sex with white women was the real objective behind all black aspiration, that money, education, accomplishment of any kind were for black men mere stepping-stones en route to the bedroom and the ultimate nirvana of intimacy with white women."

In 1946, as Wexler points out, other factors added to white Southerners' sense that they were under siege. Half a million black soldiers had returned to Dixie from overseas emboldened by the less racially stratified social life they found there and expecting to taste some of the freedom and democracy they'd fought for. Also, Georgia's blacks had recently won the vote and Wexler gracefully provides a backdrop of the white community's bubbling-up resentment and paranoia.

Barnette Hester was stabbed just days before a gubernatorial election that pitted an enthusiastically racist Eugene Talmadge against the relatively moderate James Carmichael. Wexler writes that a meeting of local whites called after the Barnette Hester stabbing helped foster the idea that a "lynching would punish Roger Malcom and keep black voters away from polls." Although Waltonites didn't lynch Malcom until after the election -- they were too drunk that night to plan properly -- and blacks peacefully voted in Walton, intimidation of blacks throughout Georgia led to Talmadge's victory that year. Surprisingly, Wexler reveals that Georgia had more registered black voters than any other state in the country due to a heroic voter registration drive. This is the unfathomable paradox of the time that Wexler brings to light: Georgia, and specifically Walton County, seem in some ways to be moving forward and yet eerily stuck in the past.

One of the most disheartening, and important, aspects of Wexler's book is her exploration of lynching laws. Local authorities consistently failed to prosecute lynchers; the federal government couldn't intervene because murder was a state crime. The federal government, Wexler explains, could only charge lynchers for violating federal civil rights statutes, Section 51 and Section 52. The first statute applied when the state, rather than an individual, infringed on another citizen's life and liberty. The second statute only pertains to those cases in which the sheriff or some law enforcement official yields jail keys to a lynch mob -- another common occurrence. (The possibility that the sheriff might have tipped off the lynch mob allowed FBI agents to descend on Walton County.)

Furthermore, all efforts to pass a federal anti-lynching law were quashed by Southern Democrats: "These senators not only claimed that a federal lynching law would infringe on a state's right to prosecute crime within its borders," Wexler writes, "but they also argued that the decline in the incidence of lynching proved there was no need for such a law. Lynching, they claimed, was becoming obsolete naturally." Congress tried and failed to pass an anti-lynching law over 100 times in 46 years.

We still don't have an anti-lynching law in America. But it's possible that the Moore's Ford lynching jolted the country out of its complacency -- if only because four people, including two women, were killed in the act. Finally, in 1991 a man named Clinton Adams, who was 10 at the time of the lynching and claims he witnessed it while playing nearby, came forward with a sketchy story about the crowd of men he saw shoot the Dorseys and Malcolms. As "Fire in a Canebrake" unfolds into what at first seems to be a satisfying whodunit, what Wexler actually proves (achingly) is how much the nation has lost in the absence of accurate accounts of the crime. Even today, lynching succeeds in its attempt to erase the past -- descendents and relatives of lynching victims have little chance of getting justice.

"Fire in a Canebrake" is full of chilling moments, but I found Wexler's accounts of those who remember the lynching particularly unsettling because they make lynching seem less like some freakish aberration out of a history book. Hughlon Peters, a Walton County man related to the Hesters, could barely lift his eyes from the TV set when recently questioned by FBI agents still investigating the case. Peters only remarked to his wife, "I don't think the Hesters killed anybody at Moore's Ford, did they?" In 2001, an anonymous individual called the editor of the Walton Tribune to name five men from the lynch mob: "It's been a family secret for so long. But I've heard the same story from three different people -- they did it, and they know they did it," the caller said. An 84-year old black man named Roy Jackson was still mad at George Dorsey for hanging out with white women.

Lynching in the traditional sense of the word may have died out, but the aftershocks of the violence of the past can still be felt today. Phillip Dray asks, "Is it possible for white America to really understand blacks' distrust of the legal system, their fears of racial profiling and the police, without understanding how cheap a black life was for so long a time in our nation's history?" When you consider the disproportionate number of black inmates on death row, it's not a total surprise that Jesse Jackson and Bruce Shapiro gave their 2001 book about capital punishment the deliberately provocative title "Legal Lynching." (And they aren't the first to imply the connection.) "Perhaps not so coincidentally," the authors write, "the turn-of-the-century resurgence in the death penalty coincided with the great wave of lynchings of African-Americans throughout the South -- 'unofficial' executions running parallel to those sanctioned by courts." It was in 1920, during the height of a second wave of lynchings in the U.S., that many states reinstated the death penalty.

Comparing a legally executed death penalty with vigilante "justice" may sound inflammatory, but it shouldn't be forgotten that part of the formal definition of "to lynch" (according to Webster's) is to murder an accused person "without lawful trial." Death penalty trials may be technically lawful, but as recent studies have revealed, the application of the sentence is far from fair. (Last month, Gov. George Ryan commuted the death sentences of every prisoner on Illinois' death row because he had concluded that the penalty was imposed in an "arbitrary and capricious" manner.) An individual convicted of killing a white person, for example, is far more likely to receive a death sentence than someone found guilty of killing a black. Lynching per se may be a crime of the past, but the problem of rough justice has not gone away.

By Suzy Hansen

Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer.

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