On a late July day, a crowd of people were trying to find the right spot on a two-lane road outside the town of Monroe to watch a crime.
With the same megaphone he’s carried all day, civil rights activist and former Georgia legislator Tyrone Brooks got people where they need to be.
“If you all make your way up the hill you can see the first scene,” Brooks announced.
Then, a 1940s Mercury, all beige curves, rumbled down the road. A well-dressed white man with a fuming cigarette waved the car down before it crossed the Apalachee River.
With the car idling, he picked out one of the passengers.
“Get him out of the car!” the smoking man shouted.
Then, with the help of more white men, he forced four black people — two couples — onto the bridge.
“What are y’all doing? He’s been in jail? What are y’all doing?” shouted the actor portraying George W. Dorsey.
On July 25, 1946, the mob probably wanted Roger Malcom. He had already been in jail for stabbing Barnette Hester, a white man. But by the end of the 15th annual reenactment of the lynching at Moore’s Ford Bridge, spectators saw how Malcom’s wife, Dorothy Dorsey Malcom, her brother, George Dorsey, and his wife, Mae Murray Dorsey, were also murdered.
Director Cassandra Greene stopped the action moments before the mob took the four victims to a nearby field, where they were shot dozens of times.
The cast remained frozen on the bridge while audience members found a place to watch through the end.
The real end to this story, or at least the closest any of us will come to the end, could come to an Atlanta courtroom later this year.
Seventy-three years ago, the Moore’s Ford lynching made headlines all over the country.
President Harry S. Truman was among those who wanted justice in the case and ordered an FBI investigation. But over the course of a grand jury investigation, where the FBI interviewed over half the population of Walton County and more than one hundred people testified before the grand jury, not a single indictment was handed down. That’s why the rifle-wielding white man that Debbie Casey played this year has no name.
“You can’t get enough white people to do this,” Casey said.
What documents are public show there were likely between 20 and 30 assailants on the bridge in 1946. In 2019, it was five actors.
Meanwhile, Darius Bradshaw has portrayed lynching victim Roger Malcom for five years. He knows the story inside and out, except for one thing.
“I want to know who pulled the trigger,” Bradshaw said.
The answer could be in the records from the grand jury investigation. For a long time, the records were said by the FBI to be lost, non-existent. That was until historian Anthony Pitch found the sealed grand jury records in the National Archives in DC three years ago.
Pitch wrote a book on his studies of Moore’s Ford titled The Last Lynching: How a Gruesome Mass Murder Rocked a Small Georgia Town. He reportedly did not like the title since Moore’s Ford was not the last lynching in the U.S.
In Pitch’s capacity as an expert on the crime — and with the help of New Jersey attorney Joseph J. Bell — he convinced Judge Marc Treadwell of the U.S. Court for Georgia’s Middle District that the grand jury records should be released.
Tyrone Brooks heads the Moore’s Ford Movement, which puts on the reenactment. He was also chasing the grand jury records, he said to people in the First African Church of Monroe on the morning of the reenactment.
“We were just elated we got here,” Brooks said of the time when he heard Pitch would see the records. “Finally, finally.” But the elation was short lived.
“Then, the Department of Justice, the FBI, they went back and said, ‘Oh no, we’re going to appeal that,’” Brooks recounted to murmurs from the audience.
But Pitch and Bell kept pushing in court. Now, Bell will make the case for transparency in an upcoming October hearing before all 12 judges of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Bell told the story up to that point after Brooks introduced him to the church. He in included the bit about the court security guard who was from the same town in New Jersey as him — a good omen. But then, the story ran square into an unforeseen complication.
“Most unfortunately, Pitch passed away about three weeks ago,” Bell said.
Now, Bell will have to prove to the court there are enough people who still care about Moore’s Ford to justify unsealing the records. Keeping the crimes in the public eye is one reason the Moore’s Ford Movement has been reenacting the lynching for 15 years and why actors will relive it twice more by this time next year. Bell has their support.
Bell will also need someone to make sense of the records if they are released, another historian as well-schooled in the case as Pitch. Bell told the church he had someone.
“Another author, Laura Wexler, wrote a book on the Moore's Ford tragedy as well,” Bell said.
Wexler published her book Fire in a Canebrake: The Last Mass Lynching in America in 2003. She has spoken with Bell and is prepared for the grand jury records, but she is dubious about an easy resolution to the mystery.
“Do I think there's going to be a smoking gun in this?” she said. “I don't know. I mean, I really don't know.”
What’s more, Wexler said treating the Moore’s Ford lynching as a murder mystery misses the bigger picture.
“The murder is the action,” Wexler said. “But it's a murder and more.”
As such, Wexler said guilt spreads far past the lynch mob.
“There's the violent racist on the bridge, but more people exist in this sort of liminal state where they know something they don't agree with it, but they don't tell what they know,” she said. “I would argue the majority of people are in that liminal state.”
In Wexler’s book, it’s clear some people in Monroe kept quiet because they feared losing their lives. For others, it could have been their good name in the community, their jobs or their political power.
“We would look to the entire system as both the cause for an incident like this and then the protection for those who perpetrated it,” Wexler said.
Wexler is looking for restorative justice of a kind with South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Lynching reenactment organizer Brooks agrees with Wexler that the killers may never be known.
“I'm not counting on conviction at this late age and late time,” Brooks said. “We’re looking at suspects who probably are 90 or 100 years old.”
Like Wexler, Brooks sees a more expansive role for the grand jury documents.
“We think confessions and truth and reconciliation healing is the appropriate way to go, similar to South Africa after apartheid ended,” Brooks said.
Joe Bell got to make his case for the grand jury records in October, before all the judges of the 11th Circuite Court of Appeals. When he did, no one, neither the U.S. attorney nor the judges, seemed to want to hold on to the grand jury records. But they aren't Bell's yet. He said something else is at work.
"We're in the throes of a dilemma, where you have to separate whether or not this is a cold case or whether the courts have the inherent authority to release the records of the grand jury transcript," Bell said outside the federal courthouse.
If the court decides judges can release grand jury testimony, the effect could ripple far past this case. Still, Bell says he expects justice in the Moore's Ford lynching someday and maybe even someday soon.
Plans are in the works to reenact the lynching at Moore's Ford in August 2020.