FBI probes claim suspects in 1946 Georgia mass lynching may be alive

US authorities are investigating whether
some of those responsible for one of the
American south’s most notorious mass
lynchings are still alive, in an attempt to
finally bring prosecutions over the brutal
unsolved killings.
FBI agents questioned a man in Georgia
who was among several in their 80s and
90s newly named in connection with the
Moore’s Ford Bridge lynching of 1946 on a
list given to the US Department of Justice
by civil rights activists, he told the
Guardian.
Speaking at his home in Monroe, 10 miles
west of the lynching site, Charlie Peppers
denied taking part in the killings of four
African Americans who were tied up and
shot 60 times by a white mob.
“Heck no,” said Peppers, 86, when asked if
he was involved. “Back when all that
happened, I didn’t even know where
Moore’s Ford was.” Peppers, who was 18 at
the time of the lynching, said: “The blacks
are blaming people that didnA report by the Equal Justice Initiative
(EJI) published last week found at least 700
more lynchings than had previously been
recorded in southern states, renewing calls
from campaigners for any suspects still at
large to be brought to justice before it is
too late.
The Moore’s Ford incident, widely
described as America’s last mass lynching,
stands out as a particularly brutal case
even in Georgia, where more lynchings
were recorded between 1877 and 1950 than
in any other state, according to the EJI
study. The report was the result of almost
five years of investigations into lynchings
in 12 southern states.
No one was ever prosecuted for the killings
on 25 July 1946 of two black couples in
their 20s: George and Mae Murray Dorsey,
and Dorothy and Roger Malcom. According
to unconfirmed claims from the time that
are now asserted by campaigners, Dorothy
Malcom was heavily pregnant and her
unborn baby was cut from her body by the
attackers.
An outraged President Harry Truman
ordered a federal investigation and
rewards totalling $12,500 – worth more
than $150,000 today – were offered for
information leading to a conviction. A
grand jury was convened and heard
evidence for three weeks. Yet no
indictments were brought for the killings,
which have long been linked to the Ku
Klux Klan.
However then-Georgia governor Roy
Barnes reopened the state’s inquiry in
2000 and the FBI reopened its own case in
2007. Georgia state representative Tyrone
Brooks, who leads an annual re-enactment
of the lynching as part of a campaign for
justice, said the absence of prosecutions
still hurts black residents of the area.
“There is a lot of pain, a lot of frustration
and a lot of disappointment,” said Brooks.
“Because it has always said – like other
cases have suggested more recently – that
black lives don’t matter”.
Peppers was accused of being involved by
his nephew, Wayne Watson. Video of
Watson, 57, claiming in 2013 that Peppers
and several other men from the area had
spoken of their involvement in the killings
was given to the US Department of Justice
by the National Association for the
Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
“All through my life, I heard them talk
about the Moore’s Ford and the lynching,”
said Watson, in an April 2013 interview.
“I’m tired of it, when you go through life,
and you’re living with lies.”
Watson alleged that several of the men he
named were Klan members. When asked
this week Peppers denied he is or ever was
a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
Watson said he had previously given
information on the lynching to the city
police and was ignored.
Watson made his remarks to Benjamin
Jealous, who was then the NAACP
president. Hilary Shelton, the NAACP’s
Washington Bureau director, told the
Guardian this week that during a meeting
he handed a DVD containing the video
footage to Thomas Perez, who was then the
head of the Justice Department’s civil
rights division and is now the US Labor
Secretary, and urged him to take action.
“We already knew it was true that some of
them were still here, and still alive, but we
just needed people who could name
names,” said Edward Dubose, an NAACP
national board member and former
Georgia branch president, who has
campaigned for many years on the issue.
Peppers said he was visited at his home by
two FBI agents, one man and one woman,
last year and was questioned for about 40
minutes. He said he asked them: “Why in
the world are y’all bringing stuff up that
happened 60 years ago. Why didn’t y’all do
something about it then?” The male agent
called Peppers a week later asking for
further details of his family, he said.
The victims of the lynching, who were
sharecroppers, were killed after Roger
Malcom was bailed from Walton County
Jail on charges of stabbing Barnette Hester,
a 29-year-old white farmer. Hester was
rumoured locally to be having an affair
with Roger’s wife, Dorothy, according to
Laura Wexler, the author of Fire In A
Canebrake, a 2003 book on the killings.
The couples were seized by a crowd on a
dirt road while being driven home in a
truck by Loy Harrison, a white farmer who
had paid to bail Malcom out of jail. They
were beaten, dragged to a clearing beside
the Apalachee River and shot. Harrison,
who escaped unharmed and said he was
ambushed, has been accused by civil rights
activists of being a Klan member and
helping to set up the lynching.
Investigators at the time reported
difficulty in obtaining statements and
evidence on the killings. A conspiracy of
silence among the white residents of the
area was blamed. Bullets and shell casings
were recovered from trees and the
surrounding area but little other evidence
existed at the time.
The killing of George Dorsey, who was a
second world war veteran, caused
particular outrage. Eventually about 55
suspects or people of interest were
identified. Several were called to testify to
the grand jury but none was charged.
In July 2008 the FBI and Georgia Bureau of
Investigation (GBI) said they had collected
material from a home in Walton County
that was being investigated further.
Watson said in his interview that he had
provided the tip-off for that raid.
Special Agent Stephen Emmett, a
spokesman for the FBI’s Atlanta field
office, declined to discuss the case or
Peppers’s questioning.
“We’re not going to be able to confirm or
clarify any development that you’re
describing,” said Emmett. “It’s still a
pending investigation”.
The Department of Justice did not respond
to several requests for comment. A
spokeswoman for the GBI referred all
inquiries to the FBI.
Watson told Jealous he had been shunned
by members of his family after entering a
relationship with a black woman. “I want it
all over with, the racism,” he said.
Watson said in the video that he had spent
time in jail. According to public records he
was convicted in 1999 of obstructing a law
enforcement officer. He could not be
reached for comment. Two neighbours at
his last known address said he had been
evicted and was thought to now have no
permanent home.’t even know
what happened back then.”