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Activists re-enact grisly lynching in search for justice

  • Story Highlights
  • The slayings at Moore's Ford are among unsolved slayings the FBI could reopen
  • In 1946, a white mob beat and repeatedly shot four black sharecroppers
  • One victim, Dorothy Malcom, had her unborn baby cut from her womb
  • Source says FBI sending message to killers: "We're on your trail"
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By Eliott C. McLaughlin
CNN
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MONROE, Georgia (CNN) -- The police were only about 50 yards down the road when the gun-wielding white mob stopped the car and dragged the two black men out, shoving them face first into the dirt.

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A local woman playing Dorothy Malcom has an unborn baby cut from her womb during the re-enactment.

The two women were next to be yanked from the burgundy Buick into the thick, sultry air of a Southern summer, one of them thrashing and flailing as she screamed and pleaded with the mob to spare her and her unborn child.

The lynch mob dragged the sharecroppers through the pine trees down a wagon trail to the Apalachee River and, on their leader's command, unleashed three torrents of gunfire.

As the four hit the ground, a man stepped from the woods and shot two streams of ketchup onto the victims for effect.

Wednesday's graphic re-enactment of Georgia's last mass lynching is the organizers' way of drawing attention to the still-unsolved murders. See and hear scenes from the re-enactment »

The investigation into the atrocities at Moore's Ford is one of scores from the civil rights era that have been or could be reopened under a cold-case initiative by the FBI.

Decades-old cases can and have been solved. In 2005, former Ku Klux Klansman Edgar Ray Killen was convicted of killing three civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964. Earlier this year, another former Klansman, James Ford Seale, was found guilty of kidnapping and conspiracy in the 1964 deaths of two black teens in Mississippi.

Congress is considering a bill, currently stalled in the Senate, that would create a special unit in the Justice Department and provide $100 million over the next decade for the FBI to investigate these types of slayings.

Getting answers remains critical to some communities, even 40, 50 or 60 years on, local leaders say.

"We want to take the road to reconciliation, but we have to have truth to get reconciliation and we need justice to get reconciliation," said civil rights activist Robert Howard, who has researched the Moore's Ford case for 40 years.

Howard, 66, was 5 years old when, on July 25, 1946, a real gun-wielding white mob dragged Roger and Dorothy Malcom and George and Mae Murray Dorsey down the same wagon trail.

The case

Roger Malcom, according to the FBI synopsis of the case, had been jailed 11 days earlier after stabbing a white farmer, Barnette Hester, in the chest. Witnesses told authorities that Malcom suspected Hester had slept with his wife, Dorothy.

Knifing a white man was a dangerous crime for a black man in those days, especially in the rural South. "Everyone knew Roger was going to die. That was automatic," Howard said.

Cold-case Convictions

1977: Ex-Klansman Robert Chambliss convicted of 1963 church bombing that killed four black girls in Birmingham, Alabama
1994:
Byron de la Beckwith convicted in 1963 sniper murder of Mississippi civil rights activist Medgar Evers
1998:
Former Klan leader Samuel Bowers convicted in the death of NAACP leader Vernon Dahmer Sr., killed in 1966 firebombing of his Mississippi home
2001, 2002:
Thomas Blanton Jr. then Bobby Frank Cherry convicted of involvement in 1963 Birmingham church bombing
2003:
Earnest Avants convicted in 1966 slaying of handyman Ben Chester White, purportedly to lure the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Natchez, Mississippi
2005:
Edgar Ray Killen sentenced to 60 years in prison for the 1964 "Mississippi Burning" manslaughter of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi
2007:
Former sheriff's deputy and Klansman James Ford Seale convicted in the 1964 deaths of two Mississippi teenagers

-- Sources: CNN, The Associated Press

While Malcom was in jail, another farmer, Loy Harrison, rounded up the seven-months-pregnant Dorothy, her brother George Dorsey and his wife, Mae Murray. Harrison took them to the jail where he paid $600 to bail out Malcom, according to the synopsis.

Harrison told the FBI he wanted Malcom to work on his 1,000-acre farm, but federal authorities at the time expressed skepticism about the former Ku Klux Klansman and well-known bootlegger's purported intentions.

On the way back to his farm -- using a route authorities noted was not the most direct -- Harrison's car was stopped by at least a dozen white men who pulled the Malcoms and Dorseys from the car, beat them and shot them repeatedly.

In a scene eerily re-enacted with a toy doll Wednesday, one of the members of the mob whipped out a knife and extracted Dorothy's unborn child. Harrison later told investigators that he recognized no one in the mob, according to the FBI file.

The case caused such a stir that President Harry Truman sent the FBI to Monroe, about 40 miles east of Atlanta. But witnesses and suspects stonewalled investigators, who were left to surmise that their efforts to solve the case might not trump a countywide effort to obfuscate it.

As Georgia State Patrol Maj. William Spence told media outlets at the time, "The best people in town won't talk."

It's a refrain that echoes throughout the South -- towns too scared or complicit to come clean on what they know about their racist and often violent pasts.

But the FBI holds out hope for its cold-case initiative, as Attorney General Alberto Gonzales noted in February: "Sometimes an innocuous, small bit of information can be crucial to breaking these decades-old cases. A secret harbored for many years can be the piece of evidence we need to make our case."

About 100 cases have been identified as potentially viable, an FBI source told CNN.

There have been no public progress reports since the cold-case initiative was announced last year, but agents have been assigned.

Cold-case initiative heats up

With help from the Southern Poverty Law Center, the National Urban League and the NAACP, the bureau compiled a list of several cases and doled them out to FBI field offices, which were instructed to report back on the viability of the cases.

"It's one of the unfinished chapters of the civil rights movement," SPLC president Richard Cohen said of the cold cases. "To simply let them lie because it's been a long time is the worst kind of self-fulfilling prophecy."

But getting folks to talk isn't the only thing making these cases problematic. In many of the crimes -- the bulk of which were perpetrated in the '40s, '50s and '60s -- the suspects and witnesses have died. In other cases, all-white juries acquitted the suspects and there is no federal jurisdiction to reopen those investigations.

FBI spokesman Stephen Kodak said the ages of the remaining suspects and witnesses was a factor in the initiative's timing.

"In the older cases, you're getting to the point where the age of the suspects -- they're not going to be alive much longer," Kodak said.

Cohen of the SPLC said many killers have died unpunished and "everyone has a sense that the clock is ticking."

But he and others also see the FBI sending a message.

"There's a sense that they want people to recognize that they shouldn't sleep easy thinking they got away with murder ... a sense of, you know, we're on your trail," Cohen said.

That message is particularly important to the black community, said Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP's Washington bureau.

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"A good percentage of African-Americans are leery of our Justice Department," Shelton said. "When there hasn't been a real effort to deal with these historical events, how can we count on them to provide the support and protection we need today?"

In rural Georgia, the advocates for justice in the Moore's Ford slayings aren't relying solely on federal intervention. They've scraped together $27,000 for a reward as they continue their battle to find justice for the Malcoms and Dorseys. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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