THE BLOG
06/27/2005 11:59 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Feds Should Revisit America’s Most Heinous Lynching

At a recent press conference, a phalanx of black Georgia state legislators called the execution murder of two black farm couples in Monroe, Georgia in 1946 the last unprosecuted mass lynching in America. In a resolution, they demanded that the state prosecute the killers. The murder of Roger and Dorothy Malcolm and George and Mae Murray Dorsey was not just another unprosecuted lynch murder. It was the worst lynching atrocity in American history. It marked a turning point in law and public policy on racial violence. The killing tested the willingness of federal authorities to get involved with lynching cases, and sharply defined the limit of federal power. It also proved that public outrage and mass pressure could push the federal government to take action in racial cases.

Malcolm was jailed for stabbing a white farmer in a dispute over money or marital discord depending on which story was told. But there was no dispute about what happened next. A white farmer bailed Malcolm out of jail. While driving back to his home, he and his wife and the Dorsey’s’ were ambushed and dragged from their car by at least twenty heavily armed, unmasked men. They lined them up behind of clump of bushes, and pumped more than sixty bullets into them. An eyewitness claimed that he heard one man count to three and then heard the sound of repeated gunfire.

Dorsey had been discharged from the Army a few months earlier. He had served in North Africa and Australia and won the Good Conduct Medal, the American Defense Service Medal and the Bronze Star for his combat heroism. Yet, on that gruesome day his distinguished war record meant nothing. The murder of the two couples was the ninth multiple lynching case in Georgia since 1892.

As in the other lynching cases, state officials almost certainly would have ignored the killing or stonewalled an investigation into it. The federal government would have done its usual see no evil, hear evil act. But times had changed, returning black veterans were fired by the fight against Hitler and fascism, and civil rights groups, were aggressively pressing the government to crack down on racial violence. The NAACP instantly mobilized a mass national public and press campaign. President Truman bowed to the pressure and ordered the Justice Department to investigate. It might have ended there with local whites refusing to talk to FBI agents, and blacks too scared to speak out. But this time women and a decorated World War II veteran were the victims. That further fueled national outrage.

FBI agents quickly identified several suspects, and Attorney General Tom Clark announced that he’d impanel a federal grand jury to hear witness testimony. Both of which were firsts in lynch cases. The NAACP and other civil rights groups virtually camped out at the White House and the Justice Department. They continued to demand that arrests and prosecutions be brought. Four months later, Clark convened the grand jury. It included twenty-one whites and two blacks. This was another first for the South. The jurors heard testimony from 100 witnesses. They finally concluded that they could not firmly establish the identities of the killers and closed the case.

The NAACP immediately screamed foul, and Clark publicly vowed to continue to look for evidence to bring indictments. Privately, he ordered the FBI to terminate the investigation. But Clark had tried to bring the killers to justice, and pressure from civil rights groups and the press had moved a reluctant White House, and Justice Department to act. It also proved false the federal government’s reflexive claim that lynch cases were simple murder cases and if local officials refused to make arrests and bring prosecutions the federal government’s hands were tied. Two federal statutes gave the Justice Department the power to prosecute public officials and law enforcement officers who committed or conspired with others to commit acts of racial violence. The statutes were enacted by Congress immediately after the Civil War and were aimed at specifically punishing racial attacks against blacks.

But it was a moot point, witnesses refused to name names, and prosecutors did not or would not compel them to name them. The FBI, though, had fingered at least some of the probable killers. The white farmer that bailed Malcolm out of jail was a Klan member, and was probably complicit in the murders, or could identify some of the gunmen.

A half-century later, the likelihood is that some of them are still alive. In fact, black legislators insist that two of them still living in the county. State prosecutors in Mississippi and Alabama have gone after the killers in old racial cases, and have gotten convictions. Georgia Prosecutors should do the same. If they refuse, and so far they have, the feds should finish the job they started fifty years ago and prosecute the monsters that committed the worst lynching atrocity in American history.