An unlikely friendship breathes new life into 1946 lynching mystery

They would seem to have nothing in common but a birthplace: One, a 71-year-old civil rights activist; the other, a 54-year-old son of the Ku Klux Klan.

But they shared more than roots in Walton County, where the racism they grew up with shaped both men. It would inform their unlikely friendship, out of which emerged potentially explosive revelations into the darkest chapter in their hometown’s history.

In April, in a videotaped interview, Wayne Watkins repeated to then-NAACP President Ben Jealous what he had told Robert Howard a few months before. Not only did he know who participated in the 1946 lynchings of four black sharecroppers at Moore’s Ford Bridge, but at least five of them, according to Watkins, were still alive.

“Ain’t nothing he said that I don’t believe,” said Robert Howard, the retired director of the local SCLC chapter who had befriended Watkins months earlier.

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Howard has spent much of his life pursuing justice for Roger Malcom, Malcom’s pregnant wife Dorothy and another couple, George and Mae Murray Dorsey. Malcolm had been held in the Walton County jail for stabbing a white farmer and had just been freed on bond when they were attacked by white vigilantes.

The group was driving home when they were stopped by the mob, taken to a field near the bridge, tied up and shot more than 60 times.

Over the years occasional new leads have popped up in this case, raising hopes for justice that may soon be extinguished. Any suspects who might still be living — the youngest of which would be in their mid-80s — won’t be around for much longer.

“All through my life I’ve heard them talk about it,” Watkins said in the interview with Jealous. Most of the stories came from a relative of Watkins, a member of the KKK who was present that night. “I want it all over with,” Watkins said.

Though he offered no physical evidence, Watkins assuredly went through the roster of Klansmen he claims participated in the killings.

It’s a slender reed to pin such faith to, but it may the last best hope for justice.

Since the interview, civil rights advocates who’ve remained active in finding the Moore’s Ford killers have lobbied federal, state and local officials to question the suspects named by Watkins.

Meanwhile, their star witness dropped out of sight not long after the interview with Jealous. Howard said he thinks his friend has been warned to stop talking.

“I don’t know what all he’s been through,” Howard said. “I miss talking to him.”

Watkins’ words resonate

The Moore’s Ford lynchings made international headlines, bringing unprecedented condemnation to the mob justice that had terrorized Southern blacks for generations. President Harry S. Truman, outraged that one of the victims was a veteran and two were women – uncommon even among the vicious vigilantism of the time – was moved to enact a first-of-its kind Committee on Civil Rights.

Dozens of FBI agents descended on Walton following the shootings, compling an extensive case file. But they were stymied at every turn by a conspiracy of silence.

White farmers, according to the FBI summary of the 1946 investigation, were “extremely clannish, not well educated and highly sensitive to ‘outside’ criticism.’ ”

Blacks residents, meanwhile, were “frightened and even terrified” when approached by agents. Some told the FBI they had been warned not to talk.

Eventually 55 suspects were identified but none were indicted.

Howard, 5 years old at the time, doesn’t remember the lynchings. His parents didn’t talk about it front of him or his brothers and sisters, but he managed to hear bits and pieces of the story. As he got older, he wanted to know more.

His curiosity caught the attention of Dan Young, the Monroe funeral owner who had tended to the bodies of the Malcoms and the Dorseys and had quietly set out on a mission to preserve their memory. For years he asked questions no one wanted to answer, prodding local black people he suspected knew something about the executions. Howard, then in his 20s, went along for some of those interviews.

“The fear that came out of these people was something I’ll never forget,” Howard said. “I don’t see how they lived that life like they did under the pressure they came under.”

Few would speak to Young, Howard remembers. “Go away, you’re going to get us hurt,” they’d tell him.

That resistance persisted for decades after the lynchings, but Howard, who took over for his mentor when Young died, remains unbowed.

“(Howard) is the spiritual head of the movement,” said Rich Rusk of the Moore’s Ford Bridge Memorial Committee. “He’s pursued this for decades, at great risk to himself.”

Howard confirmed that he’s received numerous death threats, and the house where he’s lived most of his life was firebombed in the mid-1960s.

“There’s places I still don’t go [in Walton County], people I still don’t talk to,” Howard said. “You can’t ever totally escape that fear.”

So he was understandably uneasy two years ago when he received a call from an employee at the local post office. “There’s a white guy here looking for Robert Howard,” said the voice on the other line.

Talks lifted burden

Howard agreed to meet the stranger. He had barely gotten out of his car when Watkins approached, hand outstretched.

“‘Robert, I’ve been wanting to talk to you. I heard you’ve been through a lot of stuff, and I have been too,’ ” Howard recalled.

Watkins, whom Howard refers to as “W.W.,” didn’t hold anything back, confiding in Howard about a falling out with his family over his African-American girlfriend. That initial conversation in the post office parking lot would continue in the days and months that followed.

Howard heard all about Watkins’ hardscrabble life, which included time in jail.

“Our relationship got so close, and we talked about so much, I’d get at least four phone calls a day,” said Howard, who in turn confided in Watkins. “I think he got a chance to relieve a lot of pressure he had on him because of stuff that he knew.”

About seven months into their friendship, Watkins dropped the bombshell about that summer night in 1946 on the banks of the Apalachee River. Some of the names he mentioned were familiar to Howard through his involvement in civil rights causes.

“They are some known racists,” he said. Some of them turned up in the FBI files, though it’s unclear if they’ve been interviewed since the initial probe 67 years ago.

The FBI’s investigation into the lynchings remains open, a spokesman told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In 2000, then-Gov. Roy Barnes ordered the GBI to reopen the case.

Neither agency would discuss it.

‘To hell and back’

It’s been several months since Howard saw Watkins. He was coming out of the Walton County courthouse in Monroe when he spotted Watkins and called out his name. Watkins turned and ran off.

“He looked like he’d been to hell and back,” Howard said. “To me, that wasn’t the Wayne I knew.”

A local minister told Howard he’d seen Watkins panhandling downtown. The AJC was unable to locate an address or phone number for Watkins.

Howard still has faith in his friend and hopes the painful family history he shared with him will finally bring closure to the killings that haunt them both.

“If this doesn’t pan out I don’t know if we’ll ever find justice,” Howard said.

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