Fire in a Canebrake: The Last Mass Lynching in America by Laura Wexler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
July 25, 1946, is a day that forever changed the lives and history of Walton County, Georgia. I wasn't even a glimmer in my parents' eyes on this day as they would not be born until 1951 and 1955. However, I feel a connection to this event in a small way.
On this fateful day, I'm sure that Roger and Dorothy Malcom and George and Mae Murray Dorsey had no idea what would happen to them as they climbed into Loy Harrison's car to travel back to the farm from the jailhouse in Monroe. Loy had just bailed Roger out of jail after being cleared of murder charges when Barrett Hester recovered from his stab wound. Roger would have to work off the bail paid by Loy by working on his farm. Totally acceptable to him! Needless to say, they never made it past Moore's Ford Bridge before being ambushed. The Malcom's and the Dorsey's lives would end at the bridge when they were lynched. The reason? No one really knows for sure but one could surmise it's because they were black. Roger had attempted to murder Mr. Hester over comments made concerning him and some white girls.
I am drawn to this story because I now teach school in Walton County. I have always wondered what was causing the racial tension I was witnessing. It was more than I've seen in other places, such as my hometown. I read this book on the recommendation of a teacher friend, Susan, who stated that "this should be a required read for anyone living in the south not raised here."
I was born in a small town in Illinois in the 1970's. I have seen KKK cross burnings and witnessed first hand the hatred that my community had for people of different races. In 1994, while working at Dairy Queen, we had a black family travel through town looking for a meal. When my co-workers saw them get out of the car, they started turning lights off and moving away from the public eye in the hopes that this family would "get the hint" that they were not welcome. My parents taught me well to respect people of all races, colors, sizes, etc and I took the high road that day to make sure this family felt welcome. I waited on them, cooked their food, and delivered it to their table while my co-workers cowered in the back room of the store in fear of what these people might do. We didn't have any other customers while they were there either, which I could not understand. Looking back now, I realize just how racist my hometown was, and still is. It has "grown up" a little and now it is more diverse but when I graduated high school in 1995, I had never been to school with a person of another race. I left that small town in the fall of 1995 and moved to Arkansas to go to nursing school. All of a sudden, I was surrounded by people of all different cultures, races, and backgrounds. I'm thankful my parents taught me so well. They said to treat others as I wanted to be treated, which is what I did. Many of my friends now do not look like me at all and they have taught me a lot about their various backgrounds and beliefs.
My students are amazed to hear my story and how recent I experienced some of these things. I've lived in a neighboring GA county for 10 years now after leaving Arkansas. Some of those students are ancestors to the people involved in the lynching of 1946. I wish the details of the lynching weren't such a mystery. Maybe the people of Walton County could have more trust in each other if they only knew. I fear that if this mystery is ever solved, however, that tensions will heighten once more. In recent years, some have come forward with information. However, the FBI has found it to be conflicting with testimony of 1946. Are people coming forward with information for the fame and glory or do they finally want to put this story to rest?
I can't say that I "enjoyed" this book because it's not meant to be enjoyed. I found myself totally engrossed in the twists and turns, wanting to drive the routes mentioned (I only know where a few are and have not ever been to Moore's Ford Bridge. I would like to go just to see it, to get a glimpse of what it might have been like that day for those involved). I do pass the old cotton mill and some of the lesser mentioned places and doing so today gave it a rather nostalgic feel. Do I feel different about Walton County knowing all of this? Yes and no. I have a greater appreciation for the events that happened. I have a better understanding of some of my students and their families. I have a desire for people to find a more cohesive sense of community within themselves and to be more accepting of others, like them or not. My personal feelings of the people in the community have not changed just from reading this book.
One thing about this book that really stood out, literally, from the beginning, is the use of the picture in the front of this book. It is of the lynching victims in the funeral home. There were no fancy caskets or mounds of flowers everywhere. It is a picture of the mourners looking over the bodies of the Dorsey's and Murray's. It's graphic. It's sad. It's sickening. It shows so much though in the ways that blacks were treated differently. No way would the picture have even been taken had it been four white victims.
I also did not know what "canebrake" looked like or even it's purpose. However, the title implies a "fire in a canebrake." Witnesses would say that this is what the lynching sounded like. To see what canebrake looks like (for those of you like me who simply didn't know), here is a picture:
To date, many federal and state laws have been passed in regards to Constitutional Rights, especially after this event. However, there is no law prohibiting lynching, which I think is a shame. There were other lynchings to take place after this one, but none since this one have been this large. In 1946, this made national news that even involved then President Truman issuing orders to the FBI during the investigation. People still flock to the site of Moore's Ford in an attempt to find evidence that might bring this story to rest. They still interview people about the events, much like Laura Wexler did in writing this story. Many of the people there in 1946 have since passed on and left their stories and legacies to family members, who may or may not know what to do with the information. The fear of passing along information is still there so this mystery may never see itself resolved. I only hope the efforts by the Moore's Ford Memorial Committee have brought about some peace to the communities in Walton County.
To read the first two chapters and to see pictures of the area (no graphic pictures...just those of tombstones and of the original site plus new bridge) please visit the author's website at www.fireinacanebrake.com
I purchased this book from Amazon.com on the recommendation of Susan.
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