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America's Last Mass Lynching

Reward poster in the Moore's Ford killings.
Reward poster in the Moore's Ford killings.
<i>Fire in a Canebrake</i> documents the 1946 mass lynching that outraged the nation.
Fire in a Canebrake documents the 1946 mass lynching that outraged the nation.

One July afternoon in 1946, in rural Georgia, a white mob killed four young black people in a hail of gunfire. The brutal lynching led to a national outcry, prompting President Harry Truman to push for sweeping civil rights changes that would ultimately desegregate the military. J. Edgar Hoover's FBI investigated, but no one was ever convicted of the murders.

On Morning Edition, NPR's Renee Montagne speaks with Laura Wexler, author of Fire in a Canebrake: The Last Mass Lynching in America, a new book that revisits the incident.

Wexler took the title from the way local people describe the lynchings. "A canebrake is a thicket of river cane, which almost looks like bamboo. If you were to light a fire in the area of where this canebrake was, the hollow cane stalks explode and they make a sound like gunshots," Wexler says in the Morning Edition interview.

And those gunshots in Walton County, Ga., were heard all across America. In a radio report about the incident, NBC described it as "one of the most vicious lynchings to stain our national record."

As Montagne reports, the mob was really after only one member of the group, Roger Malcom, 24, who had been arrested for knifing a white man while drunk. Roger Malcom had just been bailed out of jail by a white landowner and they were passing over the Moore's Ford Bridge when the killers appeared. The landowner later said his black passengers were dragged out of the car and down an embankment. When found, Roger Malcom's body had been mutilated.

The other three victims were George Dorsey, 28, his sister Dorothy Dorsey Malcom, 20, and Mae Murray Dorsey, 23.

Wexler set out to unravel the mystery of who was behind the Moore's Ford murders. While no suspects have been brought to court, the author says she has taken some satisfaction from what her queries did reveal about the case.

"I guess what I came to live with is that in 1946, there was neither truth nor justice," she says. "Nobody was indicted, nobody was arrested, nobody charged or punished and nobody knew what the FBI had learned. In 2003, my book is published, (and) there's still no justice, still no day in court. What there is is some better sense of the truth."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.