Ghost of a lynching that won’t be laid to rest

Every year, a group of activists assemble in deepest Georgia to stage a macabre ritual: the re-enactment of America’s last mass lynching

Monroe, Georgia. There’s a tense atmosphere at the First African Baptist Church in the small town of Monroe. Four policemen are standing in the entrance – only to help traffic, as they explain reassuringly. Rumours fly. A few miles down the road, there’s a rally in support of the Confederate flag; every now and then pickup trucks pass by on their way flying oversized Rebel States banners. Word on the street has it that the KKK has gathered here today, and at First African, no-one doubts it. Pastor Cassandra Greene is unfazed. “I like it when the Klan shows itself”, says the redoubtable outreach worker from Charleston. “I may be a Christian, but if I have to, I will fight you.”

Pastor Greene – “Miss Cassandra” to her cast – is the Artistic Director of the Moore’s Ford Bridge re-enactment: the dramatisation of a notorious massacre that horrified America 69 years ago. Roger Malcom, a black US Army veteran, was holed up at Walton county jail following a knife fight – Malcom had critically injured a white farmer whom he suspected of raping his girl-friend Dorothy. Soon afterwards another white farmer, Loy Harrison, posted bail for Malcom. Harrison brought with him a welcome party consisting of Dorothy Dorsey, her brother George Dorsey and her sister-in-law, Mary Mae Murray. Then he drove them – knowingly or not – into a Klan ambush at Moore’s Ford, a remote bridge spanning the Appalachee river. The 12-15 Klansmen lynched all of Harrison’s passengers, cutting Dorothy’s baby out her womb on the day she turned 20.

Civil war battles are re-enacted all the time. Lynchings not so much.

The atrocity made the national news. Martin Luther King, then seventeen years old, wrote to President Harry S. Truman, who in turn ordered J Edgar Hoover’s FBI to bring the killers to justice. But despite a dossier in which 55 suspects were named, no witness was willing to testify before a grand jury. To this day, the crime has gone unpunished.

Tyrone Brooks will not let the matter rest. The veteran civil rights activist has doggedly pursued a campaign for justice – after all, the case had been close to the heart of his mentor and idol, Martin Luther King. It was Brooks’ idea to mark the lynching with an annual re-enactment. Today, the former State Representative speaks to the spectacle’s audience at First African. Wearing dungarees, a polo shirt snd oversize glasses, he holds the New York Times aloft; in it is an article on former SS-officer Oskar Grönig. “If those old Nazis can be prosecuted across the world and brought to justice after all those years, why is it so difficult to bring the Moore’s Ford killers to justice who are from right here? Even today, the lynching continues. You can be lynched in a courtroom, you know. Even today, our brothers and sisters are murdered. And even today, there’s no punishment”, says Brookes while behind him, the cast of the re-enactment is bearing signs reading “I am Trayvon Martin”, “I am Michael Brown”, “I am Eric Garner”.

There may be no punishment, but there is no forgetting either; the re-enactment takes care of that. The cast are an assembly of lifelong left-wingers, trade unionists and actors. With his flowing beard and short stature, Bob Caine resembles a friendly hobbit. He supports Brooks’ group as a member of the Georgia Peace and Justice Coalition. Being Jewish, he and his wife Jeanie are all too familiar with Dixie racism. Cain’s distant relative Leo Frank was strung up by an angry white mob in 1915; a 13-year-old girl had been raped and killed at an Atlanta pencil factory, and its Jewish manager seemed a plausible perp (Frank was officially pardoned many years later).

In 1958, the Klan also bombed Atlanta’s Jewish Temple – Rabbi Rothschild was good friends with King and supported his movement. Now, Bob Cain is a klansman himself – but only a fictitious one. “For me, it’s all about re-living history, so that it isn’t forgotten. When I went to school, Moore’s Ford definitely wasn’t taught in our history lessons, it’s important people know about it.”

Can a re-enactment that’s as raw as this do anything to bring about peace and reconciliation between the races? The N-word is used from the off: “get off my land, nigger” roars Barney Hester at Roger Malcom, outraged that a black sharecropper should challenge him. Malcom – who was “probably liquored up” refuses to budge. Hester ends up with a knife in his belly and Malcom behind bars.

“You have to be very sure of yourself to take a part in this re-enactment” says Sentelle Tolbert, who plays the part of Roger Malcom. “We are calling each other the worst racial names, and we do it in a way that it looks and feels real. That only works if you can separate what’s real from what isn’t. We had to build trust during our rehearsals; and now I only feel brotherhood and love for my fellow performers.”

Eugene Talmadge was one of the most virulently racist politicians of his day. He was elected Governor of Georgia four times.

For bystanders, the performance seems to be unnerving. Standing on the steps of Monroe’s courthouse, Walter Brown-Reeves spews racial hatred: he delivers a historic speech by Georgia’s then governor Eugene Talmadge with convincing passion. If the assembled voters were to re-elect Talmadge, he promises that voting in the Democratic primaries will go back to being all-white: even though the Supreme Court had just ruled the effective disenfranchisement of blacks unconstitutional. Talmadge freely uses the “N-word” to the cheering of the crowd. A white woman pushes an ancient man in a wheelchair past the mainly black spectators of the scene. “Don’t you have jobs to go to?”, she asks. Then she bends down to the elderly man and whispers in his ear. Who knows if he remembers the three-term governor, and the lynching at Moore’s Ford Bridge.

We’re approaching the climax of the play. Our convoy of spectators makes its way to that bridge, escorted by police. The time has come, the crowds are waiting. The vintage car is approaching, chrome flashing in the sun. Armed with fake rifles, Bob Cain and his Klansmen block the group’s path. “I want that nigger!” shouts their leader and drags Malcom from the car. Then one of the women commit a tragic error. “I know you, I recognise you!”, she says. At this point, the mob decides to execute all witnesses bar Harrison. The mob drags the remaining three African Americans from the car to a clearing next to the road. The victims, tied up and certain of their death, stand in an embrace, then the volleys are fired. “Bang, bang, bang!” shout the ersatz-Klansmen as the victims splatter fake blood onto themselves and collapse. The audience photographs the shooting as well as the bloodied corpses. And despite the obvious unreality of the event, the ending comes as a genuine shock. There is palpable emotion; crying ladies and sombre children look upon the scene.

Then a man approaches from the trees. Dressed in white, he kneels before the dead and starts to sing a soulful tune: Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come”. It’s an inspired touch which lends some dignity to the dead, and consolation to those watching.

A change is possible, even if it would be but a small beginning. This February, the FBI questioned 86-year-old Charlie Peppers on the murders. Whether the case will ever be brought to court – and justice be served – remains to be seen.

[Note: This is the English translation of my article published in Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung.]

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