“They died without the benefit of lawyers or courts, stripped of all constitutional rights, and without a shred of mercy,” wrote historian Anthony Pitch, author of “The Last Lynching: How a Gruesome Mass Murder Rocked a Small Georgia Town.”
“Laws were flouted, human beings degraded, and murder committed out of the way of witnesses. The four were left to rot and stiffen by the lazy Apalachee River while festive hunters took away ropes and shell casings as trophies.”
President Harry S. Truman was so outraged by the killings that he ordered an FBI investigation. More than 2,790 people were interviewed. Dozens of suspects were identified. A grand jury in Georgia was convened within weeks of the lynching, and more than 100 people testified.
But after 16 days of testimony, no one was charged.
More than 72 years after the horrible lynchings, a federal appeals court on Monday ordered that the grand jury records in the case be unsealed.
The court issued the ruling after Pitch found sealed grand jury records in the National Archives and filed an order, requesting that a Georgia court order the federal grand jury records be unsealed. A U.S. district court in Georgia upheld his request, but the government appealed, arguing the grand jury proceeding should remain secret and sealed.
On Monday, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit ruled 2 to 1 to uphold the lower court’s order, calling the lynching an “event of exceptional historical significance.”
“Pitch requested the Moore’s Ford grand jury transcripts seventy-one years after the grand jury proceeding took place,” the court wrote. “No one has been charged, no one is currently under active investigation, and the principal parties to the investigation were adults at the time of the grand jury proceeding. Under these circumstances, seventy years is at or near the bounds of sufficient passage of time. There is no indication that any witnesses, suspects, or their immediate family members are alive to be intimidated, persecuted or arrested.”
Joseph J. Bell, an attorney who argued the case on Pitch’s behalf, called the ruling an important step in finding justice for the couples. “I believe it’s another brick in the emerging wall of justice,” Bell told The Washington Post. “I feel sunshine is the best disinfectant to reveal why 2,790 people interviewed and 106 testified and no one was brought to justice.”
Bell said the men were bound by rope. George Dorsey, a distinguished veteran who had served in World War II in the Pacific and North Africa, had just returned home to Georgia nine months before the slaying. “The coroner’s report indicates his wife, Mae, was 24 at the time she suffered death by violence,” Bell said. “The other gentleman, Roger Malcolm, received a shotgun blast to the face. His wife sustained ghastly wounds and was also assassinated. The victims were shot multiple times with pistols and shotguns. There were gaping wounds, and their flesh was shredded.”
Two weeks before the lynching, Roger Malcolm had been arrested and charged with stabbing a white farmer during a fight, according to the Equal Justice Initiative, which researched thousands of lynchings across the country. Two weeks after the fight, J. Loy Harrison, “the white landowner for whom the Malcolms and the Dorseys sharecropped, drove Mrs. Malcolm and the Dorseys to the jail to post a $600 bond. On their way back to the farm, the car was stopped by a mob of 30 armed, unmasked white men who seized Mr. Malcolm and Mr. Dorsey and tied them to a large oak tree.”
Dorothy Malcolm recognized some of the men in the mob. “When she called on them by name to spare her husband,” according to the EJI report, “the mob seized her and Mrs. Dorsey. … The white land owner watched as the white mob fatally shot the couples ... near the Moore’s Ford wooden bridge over the Apalachee River.”
Harrison “later claimed he could not identify any members of the mob,” according to the EJI.
According to EJI: "No one was more at risk of experiencing violence and targeted racial terror than black veterans who had proven their valor and courage as soldiers during the Civil War, World War I, and World War II. Because of their military service, black veterans were seen as a particular threat to Jim Crow and racial subordination. Thousands of black veterans were assaulted, threatened, abused, or lynched following military service.”
Months before the Moore’s Ford lynching, a black World War II veteran in uniform was pulled from a bus in Batesburg, S.C., and severely beaten by a police chief violently swinging a nightstick. Isaac Woodard, who was accused of talking back to the bus driver, lost consciousness in the assault and was permanently blinded.
The assaults on black veterans prompted a national outcry among black leaders, and veterans across the country protested.
When Truman heard about the lynchings of veterans, he said, “My very stomach turned over when I learned that Negro soldiers, just back from overseas, were being dumped out of army trucks in Mississippi and beaten. Whatever my inclination as a native of Missouri might have been, as president I know this is bad. I shall fight to end evils like this.”
The killings of veterans prompted Truman to issue Executive Orders 9980 and 9981 on June 26, 1948, desegregating the armed forces and the federal government.
Pitch said he came across the Moore’s Ford bridge lynching after decades of researching lynchings across the country.
“I sensed that what took place near Moore’s Ford Bridge, Georgia, in 1946 stood out above all the others,” Pitch wrote. “Not only was there a massive bonanza of written evidence to research, but one of the tethered men murdered by fanatics was a veteran of World War II, only recently returned from victory over barbarians. How could it be that the very depravity Americans fought against had taken root in our soil.”
Before Pitch published “The Last Lynching” in 2016, he said he tried to find records of the grand jury hearing. “I asked everybody before I published the book,” Pitch told The Post. “I asked everybody who had inside knowledge if they had files — all these people said they didn’t exist. It was such a long time ago. Probably lost or destroyed, they said. It was 1946.”
But Pitch said he wouldn’t give up.
“After publication of the book, I learned they were at the [National] Archives," Pitch told The Post. "I can’t tell you how. I haven’t seen them. They are all sealed up until the court decides what to do. Then they will have to check whether they have classified information. I happen to know they are voluminous.”
Pitch is hoping to find clues in the records in a case that has haunted the country for more than 70 years. “There are no witnesses that have spoken,” Pitch said. “Nobody revealed what happened on death-bed confessions. I hope the grand jury files will tell me something I don’t know at the moment. I don’t know what they contain. I know in 16 days with over 100 witnesses there is a heck of a lot of testimony to go through.”
Whoever killed the couple, “got off scot-free,” Pitch said. “The definition of a lynching is an unruly mob that without a trial takes justice for themselves. Four innocent people — and they shot them dead without any mercy, and without a trial or due process. I’m determined to get to the bottom of this.”