A decades-long effort to identify and prosecute members of the Georgia lynch mob who shot and killed two black couples in what became the nation’s last mass lynching has come to an end without anyone held accountable, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has learned.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation is preparing to officially close the 1946 Moore’s Ford lynching case, possibly by the end of January, after learning in recent weeks that the FBI quietly closed its investigation into the murders. The decision comes 17 years after then-Gov. Roy Barnes ordered the GBI to reopen the investigation, and state and federal authorities worked jointly to develop new information about one of the most notorious acts of racial terror in postwar America.
The passage of time always made those efforts doubtful. The last promising break came nine years ago, but it failed to turn up useful evidence. Authorities identified 162 suspects over the years, including more than 150 that date back to the original FBI inquiry in 1946.
Authorities zeroed in on 22 main suspects in 1946, but agents could never develop direct evidence linking anyone to the crime. Only four main suspects were living when investigators reopened the case in 2000 and, like all the other suspects, they died years ago, according to the AJC’s review of the GBI case file.
“We do not have any leads to pursue,” said GBI Director Vernon Keenan. “The targets of the investigation are all dead.”
The killings of two young African-American couples — Roger and Dorothy Malcom; George and Mae Murray Dorsey — shocked the nation. They were were shot repeatedly by a mob carrying shotguns and pistols near a remote wooden bridge in Walton County. The case made worldwide headlines and stained the small city of Monroe — 50 miles east of Atlanta.
The empty conclusion 71 years later makes the case like so many of the thousands of other lynchings of African Americans across the South from 1877 to 1950, said E.M. Beck, a University of Georgia scholar who has studied the issue.
“Will the truth ever be known?” Beck said. “That’s all gone to the grave. In the whole history of these events that’s typical.” At least now, Beck said, the investigative files will be opened so the public can learn what authorities did and what they found.
Motives for the murders
The murders terrorized an entire community and tore families apart. The victims’ survivors lived with years of anguish and pain. Some left the area never to return.
Roger Malcom Hayes was 2-years-old at the time his father was lynched. His mother, Mattie Louise Campbell, the estranged wife of Roger Malcom, took the toddler to Ohio where a family friend adopted him. Hayes returned on occasion to visit family and he regularly attended the memorial efforts to remember his father and the others lynched at Moore’s Ford, said his daughter Atanya Lynette Hayes.
Roger Hayes was hopeful when authorities reopened the case in 2000 that his father’s killers would be found, but he died in April 2016 with nothing resolved, his daughter said. He would “not be okay” with authorities closing the case, she said.
“He wanted justice,” she said. “He never cared about retributions or money or anything. He wanted someone held accountable for murdering his father. It bothered him that people knew who did and protected those people.”
Authorities concluded that the main motive for the lynching was revenge. Roger Malcom stabbed a white farmer during an argument 11 days earlier.
A secondary factor was racial intimidation linked to the 1946 gubernatorial election in Georgia.
That year, African Americans had won a Supreme Court battle ending the all-white primary, which for decades had effectively blocked African Americans from voting. Eugene Talmadge, one of the Democratic candidates for governor, used the new black enfranchisement to mobilize supporters and appealed to rural whites with virulent racist rhetoric. The Democratic primary occurred just a few days after the stabbing.
Among the new details contained in the GBI files is evidence — long suspected — that four of the original suspects belonged to the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. Investigators found charter membership documents for the Walton County KKK chapter from the 1930s and 40s. A prominent white funeral director in Monroe was listed as the “Exalted Cyclops,” or leader of the chapter, as of 1939. His funeral home initially received the victims before they were transferred to a black-owned funeral home.
Hints of law enforcement collusion
Roger Malcom had spent more than a week in the county jail in Monroe after he stabbed Barnette Hester during a fight on July 14. On July 25, a white farmer, Loy Harrison, bonded Malcom out and drove him and the other three victims along Highway 78 toward his farm.
Harrison told authorities a white mob ambushed his car at the Moore’s Ford bridge just before he tried to cross the Apalachee River into Oconee County. They dragged the couples to a nearby wagon trail along the river and shot them repeatedly. Even though the mob wore no masks, Harrison said he didn’t recognize any of the men. From the start, Harrison was the only known eyewitness and one of the main suspects.
There were rumors of local law enforcement’s involvement, too, in what appeared to be a conspiracy. Malcom had been in the Walton sheriff’s custody and was dead an hour after his release from jail.
The sensational nature of the lynching caught the eye of federal authorities. The simultaneous killing of four victims, including two women, hearkened to an even more brutal era after slavery ended. One of the men was a World War II veteran, barely a year back from war.
President Harry S. Truman ordered the FBI to investigate and the bureau sent 25 agents to Monroe in the days following the crime. Agents conducted more than 2,500 interviews over the course of several months, but a mix of fear and hostility across the community enforced a code of silence. A federal grand jury found insufficient evidence to indict anyone and concluded its investigation just days before Christmas that year.
The case sat dormant for decades as authorities moved on and the suspected killers continued to walk free in Monroe and surrounding communities. As suspects aged, more and more of them died. Even as the chance for justice seemed to fade, a small cadre of black citizens tried to keep the case alive. Then, in 1991, a middle-aged white man, Clinton Adams, approached the FBI in Florida and said he and a friend had secretly witnessed the killings as young boys, but local sheriff’s deputies had told them to keep their mouths shut.
A lead and a dead end in 2013
The AJC published Adam’s revelation in May 1992 in a front-page story. His account revived hope that the case could be solved. It also rekindled public interest and calls for accountability. The FBI briefly reopened the investigation at the time. A biracial group of citizens organized in 1997 to memorialize the victims. Then, in 1998, the FBI along with the GBI interviewed a dying man who came forward to say he had seen part of the commotion at the bridge a half century before.
The developments prompted Barnes to order the GBI to conduct a new investigation in 2000 and develop new information that could lead to prosecution of any suspects who were still alive. The most intensive investigative work was carried out that first year, but agents concluded that there was no direct evidence that could lead to a prosecution, according to records in the GBI file.
The last lead to hit a dead end was in 2013 when a man claimed his uncle and others had participated in the murders. It, too, produced no evidence to advance the investigation.
“There’s a lot of circumstantial evidence about what happened,” Keenan said. “But as far as the facts they are basically unknown.”
The decision to close the case may be a first for the GBI. Keenan says the agency keeps murder investigations open, even old cases, in the event new information surfaces. It could reopen the Moore’s Ford case if new leads emerge. But, Keenan said, it’s important for the known facts to be made public.
“The truth needs to be established and needs to be told to the state, to the citizens, to the community,” he said. “There were hundreds of lynchings of black men across the South during this era. All of them are horrible, but this is particularly devastating to the black community and the state.”
» Coming Sunday: New details from the GBI’s 17-year investigation.