The names of those involved came fast. There was his 80-something uncle, Charlie Peppers. There was another man who later went on to become a judge. There was another man who worked at a pawn shop. They all lived in the area of Monroe, Ga., where, in 1946, a white mob lynched two African American couples near the Moore’s Ford Bridge in a crime described later as “one of the most vicious lynchings to stain our national record.”
Calls for justice sounded from the nation’s highest offices. President Harry S. Truman personally ordered the FBI to investigate, offering a $12,500 reward for substantive tips. No one bit. Powerful forces seemed to be in play. Rumors had it the governor was somehow involved — which turned out to be true. So when the Bureau brought hundreds of pages of investigative files to a grand jury, it came to nothing. The grand jury chose not to bring any indictments. And the killings, despite their barbarity, remained unsolved.
But now the story of the Moore’s Ford Bridge lynchings — which remains interwoven into the community fabric — has risen once more, giving voice to a fresh inquiry and allegations of a sweeping coverup. Much of the drama involves the allegations Watson made that day at the Georgia chapel and whether they merit attention. Or dismissal.
On Monday, the Guardian published a widely read report following up on those allegations — nearly a year after the video made by the NAACP was played at a meeting of the Walton County Board of Commissioners. Reporter Jon Swaine traveled to Monroe to interview the uncle Watson accused of complicity in the lynchings.
Peppers, who was 18 at the time, told the newspaper the FBI questioned him after Watson’s tape was played at the county meeting. “Why in the world are y’all bringing stuff up that happened 60 years ago?” he told the Guardian he said to the FBI agents. The Athens Banner-Herald confirmed the FBI has an active investigation into the crime.
Peppers denied any involvement. “Heck no,” the 86-year-old said. “Back when all that happened, I didn’t even know where Moore’s Ford was.” He added: “The blacks are blaming people that didn’t even know what happened back then.”
But in fact it’s his nephew, Watson, who grew up in Monroe, who has placed culpability at his feet. “All through my life, all I heard about was the Moore’s Ford,” Watson claimed in his interview with the NAACP, adding that his uncle “still had an old shotgun.”
The NAACP seized on Watson’s claims as proof that it’s not too late to act on the lynchings and finally prosecute someone. “We already knew it was true that some of [the killers] were still here, and still alive, but we just needed people who could name names,” Edward Dubose, the former president of Georgia’s NAACP branch, told the Guardian.
It remains unclear whether Watson is a reliable narrator, as the NAACP claims, or whether his assertions do more than show how those hungry for justice can oversell purported evidence. But the sort of stories Watson told don’t appear to be all that unusual around Monroe.
Every year, local activists stage a reenactment of the lynchings, which hundreds of onlookers attend. Students still scour the scene of the crime for clues. The local newspaper, the Walton Tribune, which has done a lot of thoughtful work on the lynchings, frequently publishes explanatory stories on the crimes and how the ghosts of those slain continue to haunt the community.
Some in “Walton County have done their best to forget the Moore’s Ford lynching, attempting to consign the event to the past,” one Tribune piece noted in 2013. “Does this one event, as tragic as it still is, cast a shadow over the area from which it cannot recover? Will Walton County always be the site of Moore’s Ford in the public eye, or can it move on and cast aside the specter of this dark legacy?”
That’s why managing editor Robbie Schwartz felt “uneasy” when he watched Watson’s testimony — which has now spurred coverage in an international publication as well as the FBI questioning. Watson’s story, Schwartz said, was fairly difficult to follow.
“Watson went on to bounce back and forth — almost incoherently at times — between people who were allegedly involved in the lynching and others who were involved in the Ku Klux Klan both at the time as well as years later,” Schwartz reported. “… Some of those named are dead today while others were less than 10 years old at the time of the lynching.” Watson, who once did some time in jail and apparently disappeared after delivering those accusations, also claimed someone tried bribe him with $250,000 to keep mum.
Schwartz, in a later column, said Watson did not “benefit the quest for justice.” He was just repeating hearsay — and perhaps inaccurately at that. “A story is just a story if it is told by someone who was not there,” Schwartz said. “Going off stories told by his uncle and those rumors told in the community do not serve as credible accounts.”
One of the people Watson accused of having knowledge of the lynchings was Walton County Superior Court Judge Marvin Sorrells. The judge couldn’t fathom how his name was ensnared in the drama. “I am not sure I know where this is coming from,” Sorrells told the Walton Tribune. “But I guess since my father was with the county police at the time, [he] just naturally assumes I know about it or took part in it being all of 9½ years old.”
He said the truth will never come out. “I will say one thing — until the last person of my daddy’s generation dies, no one will talk.”