Death at the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Story of America’s Last Mass Lynching

Mae Murray and George Dorsey/Roger and Dorothy Malcom

Six months ago, while watching Always in Season, a heartbreaking documentary about the mysterious 2014 death of Lennon Lacy, I learned about the 1946 Moore’s Ford lynching ~ America’s last known mass lynching.

The townsfolk of Monroe, Georgia have held a reenactment of the lynching every last Saturday of July since 2005. A clip or two from the reenactment was shown in the documentary. It was painful to watch. It felt real.

The primary purpose for the reenactment is to bring awareness to this horror that no one has been punished for, in hopes someone may come forward. Although now, anyone who may have had anything to do with it is likely dead.

I was intrigued, curious. I’d heard of Civil War reenactments but had not heard of a reenactment of a lynching. I couldn’t think of a reason anyone would want to hold one. I understand now.

A few days before the reenactment, I decided to make the thirteen-hour drive from my home in Oklahoma City to Monroe.

I left Thursday afternoon, drove seven hours, and spent the night in a quaint Airbnb near downtown Memphis.

With only six hours of driving left, I decided to hang around Memphis for a while. My first and last stop, aside from a pedestrian burger on Beale Street, was The National Civil Rights Museum.

It is located at the former Lorraine Motel, where the civil rights icon, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated. A good portion of the motel remains. The museum tour ends with its visitors peering into the two second-story rooms Dr. King had rented on April 4th, 1968.

The rooms are purposefully fashioned to look as they did on that day. On a bedside table is a cup of black coffee in a common off-white diner mug sitting atop two matching saucers. Next to it, a partially-open blue and white school-sized carton of Christopher Milk. And on another table sits an unfinished plate of food covered with a napkin.

Also in view is a wreath affixed to the balcony railing which represents where Dr. King stood when he was shot.

I stayed at the museum for three hours, but had I not had a long drive ahead of me, I would have stayed until close. If you want an education on why Dr. King’s work was important and necessary, I can recommend dozens of books, but if you desire a crash course, make some time, no matter where you live, and get yourself to Memphis.

Afterward, I drove the final six hours to a small town just outside Monroe, where I spent the night. The reenactment was Saturday, July 25th, the 74th anniversary of the lynching.

Conditions were not perfect. Covid-19 required everyone, including actors, to mask up. And rain prevented the reenactment from being held in its usual format.

However, all was not lost. The event entailed much more than the reenactment. It happened during a combustible time in America that we haven’t seen since the 1960s. It happened in the state where Ahmaud Arbery had just been killed by suspicious white men four months prior.

At 10 a.m., former Georgia congressman and civil/human rights activist, Tyrone Brooks, who served with Dr. King and the recently-deceased civil rights giant, John Lewis, during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, kicked off the event. In 1968, Brooks began a campaign, first via demonstration and later, reenactment, in hopes of bringing someone to justice for the crimes.

Tyrone Brooks speaking at the Moore’s Ford Reeactment

Brooks began by recounting the horrific events of the lynching.

***

On July 11th, 1946, common-law husband and wife, Roger and Dorothy Malcom, had a confrontation outside the home of Barnette Hester. The Malcoms worked for Barnette Hester. During harvest time, the three would work in Hester’s field picking cotton. But most often, Dorothy was inside the home taking care of Hester’s two kids and doing domestic work. The Malcoms were black, Hester, white. Roger Malcom and Barnette Hester had been childhood playmates.

During the confrontation, Roger Malcom pulled a knife, threatening to harm his wife. Hester heard the commotion, saw the knife, and went to Dorothy’s aid. A fight ensued between the men. Malcom stabbed Hester in the chest. Many townspeople believed Hester and Dorothy Malcom were having sexual relations.

After the incident, Roger Malcolm was apprehended and taken to the Walton County Jail while Hester was taken to the Walton County Hospital.

On July 25th, Hester, whose condition had been touch and go, pulled through. That same day, Malcom was bonded out of jail by Loy Harrison, who had a habit of bonding out or paying the fines of prisoners in exchange for their free labor (to pay off their debt) on his farm. Harrison did so after previously refusing, believing Malcom would be lynched.

Accompanying Harrison to the jail were Dorothy Malcom, her brother George Dorsey, and his wife, Mae Murray Dorsey. After picking up Malcom, Loy didn’t retrace the route he had come to get him. Instead, he took a circuitous route. When they got to the Moore’s Ford Bridge, a mob was waiting for them. Harrison would later tell law enforcement officials he wasn’t mixed up with what would happen next.

The Moore’s Ford Bridge as it looked in 1946

A few men from the mob pulled Malcom out of the car, bound his wrists, and threw a rope around his neck. They then pulled George Dorsey out of the car and bound his wrists with the other end of the same rope. After Dorothy Malcom screamed at one of the men in the mob, identifying him by name, the men then pulled both women out of the car. They proceeded to line the four up and riddle them with bullets. Sixty of them. Some said Dorothy Malcom was pregnant and a man cut her fetus from her stomach. Some also said George Dorsey was castrated. Neither were verified by the funeral home operator, Dan Young, nor the newsmen who reported the story.

Loy Harrison was the lone living witness. He said he didn’t know the men involved in the incident. Thusly, the four murders were officially labeled as lynchings commonly were: Death at the hands of persons unknown.

Two weeks prior to the stabbing, Georgia gubernatorial candidate, Eugene Talmadge, a self-proclaimed white supremacist who was running for a fourth term (he would go on to win that fourth term but died before he was inaugurated), had been in Monroe during his campaign. Harrison esteemed Talmadge so much he named his second son after him. During a speech to a group of Walton County farmers, Talmadge warned that blacks in Georgia were out of control.

Several people later stated they overheard Talmadge talking to George Hester, the brother of Barnette Hester, in front of the Walton County Courthouse in Monroe. They heard Talmadge tell Hester he would “take care of the Negro” in exchange for the Hester family using their influence to help him win Walton County.

After a four-month investigation conducted by twenty-five FBI agents, in which 2790 people were interviewed and 106 people were subpoenaed, the grand jury returned no indictments. Four murders, no indictments. Nobody knew nothin’.

Memorial near the Moore’s Ford Bridge

In 1991, Clinton Adams claimed that when was 10-years-old, he and a friend witnessed the lynching from afar ~ unbeknownst to the men who did it. He appeared on Dateline and The Oprah Winfrey Show to recount the events. He accused four men of participating in the lynching. One was Loy Harrison. But by 1991, they all had died. Listen to Adams here.

***

After Brooks spoke, a few people told stories of current-day injustices. All were heartbreaking stories, but one stood out ~ the impassioned mother of Shali Tilson, who died of dehydration nine days after he was jailed for disorderly conduct in 2018. Listen to her speech here. I couldn’t stop thinking about it for several days afterward.

At noon, we loaded into our cars and drove to the burial sites of the four victims. They were buried in three different locations. We went as a funeral procession, following Brooks who rode in a hearse owned by the Young Funeral Home ~ the same home which took care of the four victims 74 years ago.

At four o'clock, the reenactment was scheduled to begin, but due to rain, it was delayed forty-five minutes. When it largely subsided, the reenactment began. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t get to see it in its usual locales, one of which was to be the Moore’s Ford Bridge. The entire reenactment was held in front of the church where we had met and listened to the speakers.

The reenactment taught me that although racism is still prevalent today, America has made much progress since 1946. To hear the actors use racial epithets so casually and forcefully unapologetic made me angry. They were hard to hear, disturbing, but in 1946 it was so commonplace it wouldn’t have been shocking to anyone.

By the time the day’s events were over, I was done ~ spiritually and emotionally drained. But, paradoxically, the day was also fruitful. I was glad I went. I listened and learned.

If you don’t know what a people have been through, how they’ve suffered, merely for being born with the wrong color of skin, you’ll be much less likely to understand their sensitivity and anger toward even the slightest hint of racism. Knowledge is power.

Source: Fire in a Canebrake: The Last Mass Lynching in America by Laura Wexler

Christian writer and historian, called to shine light on issues of race and reconciliation.

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