Fire In A Canebrake: The Last Mass Lynching in America

Laura Wexler
Scribner ($24)

by Jack Gilden

In the rural Georgia counties of the late 1940s black and white agitation over the red clay produced blizzards of snowy cotton, and black picked it and white paid for it and in the end they dumped it into machines that separated the seeds from the fibers and the fibers became strands and the strands became useful things like sheets for white and ropes for black.

This is the raw material from which Laura Wexler weaves Fire in a Canebrake, a nonfiction novel about the true-but-still-unsolved mystery of "The Last Mass Lynching in America." Georgia is Eden here, a verdant paradise of honeysuckle meadows, trickling streams, plank bridges, dusty roads, corn liquor, and taboo sex. God is very much alive, if only a faint rumble in the distance. And the people—black and white—are weevils in the garden, malevolently grubbing cotton until there is no cushion left between them.

Wexler takes us to this setting, back to 1946 and the infamous Moore's Ford Incident in which four blacks—Roger Malcom, Dorothy Malcom, George Dorsey, and Mae Murray Dorsey—were lynched by an indignant white mob. The victims weren't strung up; they were cut down by a hailstorm of more than 60 close-range shotgun blasts. The resulting sound, caught by the ears of one nearby, was likened to "a fire in a canebrake."

Ostensibly, the catalyst for the killing was Roger Malcom, a black tenant farmer who had stabbed his white landlord, Barnette Hester. The two were former boyhood playmates now separated by their life stations and their involvement with the same black woman, Malcom's wife Dorothy. Sticking a blade in Barnette Hester wasn't enough to kill him, and it probably wasn't enough to fetch 20 men with shotguns either. But the second male lynched in the attack, George Dorsey, was rumored to have slept with white women.

The case quickly became notorious, provoking outrage and horror all over the United States. Nevertheless, the murder investigation was doomed from the start. Local law enforcement officials were likely participants in the crime. President Truman took notice, but the federal government was largely a toothless dragon since its jurisdiction was narrow to the point of impotence. The FBI was dispatched in unprecedented numbers but to no good effect. Whites "protected" each other, or else. "If I had anything to do with the lynching and my brother reported it," one local man stated, "I'd kill him."

Blacks weren't much help either. The entire race had been bludgeoned into silence. There was some hope that the presence of federal agents would coax the truth from them, but the FBI wasn't built to protect or serve these citizens. There were only three black agents in the entire Bureau, and one of them was J. Edgar Hoover's aging chauffeur, who had been elevated to the title only as a means of placating the NAACP.

In fact, intense investigation by local law enforcement, the FBI, and a grand jury all came to nothing. No one was indicted. No one was ever convicted.

That no one would pay for the crime was a scenario predicted just four days after the lynching by the brilliant editor of the Atlanta Constitution, Ralph McGill. He wrote with aching poignancy: "Even though they (the killers) never come to justice, they . . . will wonder to themselves how it was that they, who some mother nursed and cared for to rear them to manhood, dreaming dreams for them, managed to come to do murder. They will begin to realize that they have taken human life and are cursed of God."

Wexler's prose is not nearly as stylistic, but it is certainly no less damning. She doesn't exert herself to tell you that the whites in this story are crude, violent, and ignorant beyond comprehension. They're happy to tell you themselves. "I knew a fellow who knew a nigger who had lived in Africa and he'd boiled up his father's head and made soup out of it and ate it," one apparent anthropologist lectured a visiting newspaper reporter. "That's the kind of people niggers is. . . . "

Her descriptions of the black community, though unvarnished, are tempered by the depressing conditions in which they functioned. Their lives were wasted tilling other people's land for a chump's wage. The political system disenfranchised them. The judicial system ignored their grievances. And the law failed to protect them when their transgressions against white supremacy delivered extemporaneous brutality upon their heads.

Though Wexler never solves the mystery of the crime, she nails its skulking nature, sacrificing this lynching upon the altar of the lynching phenomenon. She lays bare before us the internecine world of Moore's Ford, though if we gnaw at its bones too intently we may miss the flesh and marrow of our own times. Moore's Ford begat Harry S. Truman's civil rights agenda which begat Strom Thurmond's segregationist presidential campaign which begat Trent Lott's statement that America would have been better off had Thurmond won.

In January 2003, Lott resigned his exalted position of leadership in the United States Senate just as Fire in a Canebrake was rolling off the presses. The symmetry is all the more outlandish because there is still no federal law against lynching in the land of the free.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003