An interdisciplinary journal about regions, places, and cultures of the US South and their global connections

"Holding on to Those Who Can't be Held": Reenacting a Lynching at Moore's Ford, Georgia

Mark Auslander, Brandeis University

Published: 
8 November 2010
Overview: 
Ellen Schattschneider, Two reenactors playing Klansmen wait near the Moore's Ford Bridge, Walton County, Georgia, July 25, 2009.
Ellen Schattschneider, Two reenactors playing Klansmen wait near the Moore's Ford Bridge, Walton County, Georgia, July 25, 2009.

Each year since 2005, a group of multiracial activists has reenacted a lynching at Moore’s Ford in rural Georgia in which four young African Americans were murdered in 1946. The stated purpose of the reenactment is to campaign for prosecution of surviving perpetrators and more broadly to call attention to the long national history of violence against persons of color. At more nuanced levels the annual performance speaks to relations between generations, and between the living and the dead.  As a ritual enacted by local people, each performance bridges experiences of racial violence and injustice while raising the promise of reconciliation.

 

Introduction:

Map marking Walton County, Georgia
Map marking Walton County, Georgia

For the past half decade I have been fascinated and puzzled by an extraordinary annual event, a reenactment each late July of the horrific 1946 lynching of four young African Americans at Moore’s Ford, near Monroe in Walton County, Georgia. Since 2005 hundreds of people have gathered at several sites in Walton County to watch amateur performers reenact the key events associated with the lynching. At the culminating moment, around 6:00 p.m., a sedan arrives at an isolated bridge, carrying the four African American victims and a driver playing the role of a local white farmer. Other reenactors playing Klansmen emerge from the woods and wrestle the screaming victims out of the automobile and down the embankment, where they are repeatedly shot in front of the audience.

In documenting and trying to understand the varied perspectives on this event, I have attended rehearsals and planning sessions, and have been taken into the confidence of supporters and opponents of the reenactment.1 I count among my dearest friends persons on all sides of controversies over the reenactment.2 I have been deeply torn, and seen my friends torn apart, by bitter arguments over the wisdom and impact of the performance. Does it call necessary attention to a long-suppressed crime? Does it encourage witnesses to come forth, bringing evidence that might contribute to successful prosecution of this six-decades-old cold case? Or does it undermine the work of racial healing and reconciliation undertaken by interracial organizations? Does it unintentionally feed cycles of hatred and retribution, raising the possibility of new acts of violence even as it polarizes those who ought to be in dialogue?

Those who organize and participate in the annual reenactment argue passionately among themselves: Should performers strive for historical verisimilitude by wearing period-appropriate dress and deploying period-appropriate artifacts, including a vintage automobile? Or should they strive only to evoke the “spirit” of the event, wearing regular street clothes and using objects associated with present day experience? What does it mean to reenact a human rights atrocity at the locale where it took place?

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Considering Reenactment: Between Ritual, Mythos, and History

Before examining the annual Moore’s Ford events in detail, it is helpful to locate them in the broad history of reenactment, perhaps the oldest genre of human performance, long preceding the emergence of theater. Our early ancestors presumably reenacted remembered movements of hunting and gathering and the foundational acts of ancestors and divinities. All ritual practice may be conceived of as a kind of reenactment, recreating prior ritual action as well as the putative activities of humans and sacral beings. Ritual dramas and masquerades organized by cultic associations in temple complexes and sacred landscapes were common throughout the ancient world, dynamically conjoining mythic pasts, seasonal cycles, and proximate experience.3 Pilgrimage, among the most ancient of human ritual dramas, is predicated on the recreation of prior sacred journeys (including the celestial tracks of the moon and planets) and is often modeled on mytho-historical acts of mobility. The great cycles of Medieval passion and mystery plays sought to reenact (or to anticipate) for the faithful the great events of scripture, from Genesis to Doomsday. Devotional crucifixions, reenacting in visceral form Jesus‘ agony on the cross, have been performed for generations in Mexico, New Mexico, and the Philippines.

Although present-day “living history” reenactments have foundations in ancient rituals, “reenactment” in its modern sense is more often understood as a secular phenomenon. The most prominent of all forms of modern reenactment, the staging of US Civil War battles, developed in the late 1950s and the early 1960s, as men dressed in Civil War uniforms joined with the North-South Skirmish Association to stage battles on the occasion of their centennials.4 Scores of Civil War reenactments are performed each year by thousands of reenactors, viewed by tens of thousands of audience members and supported by a considerable industry of artisans. Although most of the early reenactors were white, a number of African American reconstructed regiments, such as the Massachusetts 54th USCT, regularly participate in these events. The reenactment phenomenon has proliferated globally to include battles of the English Civil War, the American Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, World War I and World War II, as well as medieval and Viking combat and Royal Navy expeditions. Battle reenactors have been recruited, in turn, to re-perform events other than military conflict; in 2001, for example, the artist Jeremy Deller staged an elaborate reenactment of a violent clash between police and union activists associated with the 1984-5 strike of British miners.5

Although most reenactments tend to emphasize the heroic, there is a tendency to evoke tragic and horrific events, activities which often echo ancient ritual dramas. Although to my knowledge, Holocaust activists do not stage live costumed reenactments of the horrors of the death camps, solemn tours through the camps resonate with earlier practices of pilgrimage, placing visitors in visceral, intimate contact with sites of extermination and martyrdom. These experiences are mimetically evoked in some Holocaust museums, in which visitors move through or near a train box car of the sort that might have carried Jews to the camps; similarly several museum renditions of the Middle Passage move visitors through recreations of the holds of slave ships.6 Midway through the the National Museum of American History’s celebrated “Field to Factory” exhibition of the African American Great Migration, visitors were forced to chose between passing through doors marked “White” or “Colored.”7

“Living History” stagings at museum and heritage sites struggle over forms of legitimate authenticity when grappling with the “tough stuff” of memories of genocide, oppression, and structural violence. Costumed staff members at Colonial Williamsburg have reenacted slaves since 1979, but the violent treatment of enslaved persons, such as lashings or branding, is not depicted.8 Nonetheless, some visitors were initially left with the impression that modern African Americans were being held in bondage.9 In October 1994 Colonial Williamsburg presented a reenacted slave auction.10 Stirring national controversy, this event has not been repeated.

Less prominent auctions and events from the slave trade and slavery times continue to be reenacted around the country. In Selma, Alabama, community activist Afriye We-Kandodis takes tour groups, usually of students, through darkened sections of the Museum of Slavery and the Civil War. For much of the tour, participants are treated as slaves--yelled at with racial epithets, crammed into a reconstructed slave ship, and subjected to an auction in which families are torn apart. Activists have sometimes reenacted slave auctions and evoked lynchings in the context of political protests or educational projects.11 At the opening of an exhibition of lynching photography during Black History Month in February 2006, African American graduate students staged a didactic lynching reenactment on the UCLA campus.12

Lynchings were reenacted in the late nineteenth century for commercial purposes. In the 1890s several commercial audio recordings evidently were made of reenacted lynchings of African Americans, including spectacle lynching of Henry Smith of Paris, Texas, in 1893. Such recorded reenactments were not produced as works of protest, but, like hundreds of photographic postcards of spectacle lynchings, were made to satisfy white public voyeuristic curiosity.13

Ellen Schattschneider, Reenacted beating, Moore's Ford, Georgia, 2009.
Ellen Schattschneider, Reenacted beating, Moore's Ford, Georgia, 2009.

The Moore’s Ford reenactment is emphatically understood by organizers and participants as an act of political and moral protest. It is not sponsored by a museum, historical society, or educational institution. It appears to be the only reenactment of a racial atrocity in the US South performed on an annual basis in front of substantial audiences.

Just as participants and erstwhile allies debate difficult questions about the reeanactment, external observers are often deeply perplexed. How do we begin to make sense of this event which so deeply moves participants and witnesses, infiltrating their dreams and nightmares?

Of the many explanations offered by participants, I am struck by a remark from a woman I shall call “Jane,” who has several times played the role of Dorothy Dorsey.14 Jane observes, “this reenactment. . . lets us hold on. We’re holding on to those who can’t be held.” What is being held onto through the performance? Ritual may never solve the underling contradictions and tensions at the heart of a social system, but it can recast those contradictions as paradoxes, so that we experience moments that are profoundly moving. The Moore’s Ford reenactment is an avowedly anti-racist and multiracial event, closely allied with the Black church and the moral aesthetics of the civil rights movement. Participants are engaged in trying to work out, and at least partially resolve, a set of underlying conundrums such as the status of the dead in US society. In Symbolic Exchange and Death, Jean Baudrillard argues that one of the signal conditions of modernity is our diminished capacity to engage in meaningful, symbolic exchanges with the dead.15 Under the conditions of what Michel Foucault terms the “biopolitical,” death has been so medicalized, neutralized, and disenchanted that we are deprived of being reciprocally linked to those who have passed away.16 And yet, Baudrillard suggests, we long for such reciprocity, to be bound in give and take with those who no longer dwell among us. Hence, our particular fascination with the victims of mass violence and catastrophe; the energies associated with the horrific conditions of their loss can be redirected towards new kinds of exchange relations among the living and the dead.

Jane’s reference to “holding on to something that can’t held” has multiple resonances. The Moore’s Ford reenactment summons up tangible presences of the intangible dead. As the performers take on the persona of the martyred victims, they allow the dead to enter into reciprocal relations with the living. Beyond that, this ritualized event enacts the impossibility and the necessity of holding onto a stable sense of self when confronting the problem of human violence.

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The Moore's Ford Lynching: Historical Background

Photographer unknown, Burial of one of the four Moore's Ford Bridge lynching victims in Mt. Perry Baptist Church cemetery, July 1946. Copyright Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Courtesy of Georgia State University Library and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Photographer unknown, Burial of one of the four Moore's Ford Bridge lynching victims in Mt. Perry Baptist Church cemetery, July 1946. Copyright Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Courtesy of Georgia State University Library and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The summer of 1946 saw extensive incidents of racial violence across the Deep South, much of it directed against returning African American servicemen, thought by white segregationists to pose a direct threat to Jim Crow. White-perpetrated violence was intense in Georgia, as a bitter gubernatorial election battle revolved around the US Supreme Court decision (Smith v. Allwright) authorizing black participation in the Democratic primary. During that summer, at least four lynchings took place in Georgia.  (The only African American brave enough to vote in one district was shot to death.)  Of these racial assaults, the most notorious were the killings at Moore’s Ford, about sixty miles northeast of Atlanta. Walton County was Georgia’s leading cotton producing county, where the hilly landscape discouraged mechanical cotton pickers and where direct white control over black farm labor remained vital.  The Moore’s Ford incident is consistent with the argument of historical sociologists Tolnay and Beck that lynching, in this time and place, can be understood as part of a system of labor control, strongly correlated with the intensity of cotton cultivation.17

The precise details of the Moore’s Ford killings illustrate the webs of affiliation, opposition, resistance, and complicity that characterized racial politics.18 On July 14, 1946, Roger Malcom, a Walton County African American sharecropper and his employer, a white farmer named Barney Hester, had a violent altercation. Malcom suspected Hester of having an affair with Dorothy Dorsey, Malcom’s lover (sometimes referred to as his common law wife) who like Roger had been working for the white farmer’s family.19 Hester, some report, was attempting to whip Malcom for beating Dorothy. Malcom stabbed the white farmer with a knife and fled. He was apprehended by local whites. Hester eventually recovered from his wounds, but at the time it was widely expected that he would die. While Malcom was being held in the county jail in Monroe, local white supremacists, including prominent Klansman, laid plans to lynch him.

On July 25, Loy Harrison, a local white farmer and the employer of Dorothy’s brother, George Dorsey, bailed Malcom out of jail, explaining that he was going to drive Malcolm to his farm where he could work off his bail. Harrison, like other wealthy white farmers, frequently employed coerced black laborers in this penal-agrarian system, which, as Douglas Blackmon has demonstrated, was in important respects a structural extension of plantation slavery.20

Also in the vehicle was Dorothy Dorsey, Dorothy’s brother George, and George’s companion Mae Murray. George Dorsey was a US Army veteran, recently returned from service in the Pacific.  Harrison drove his car on a circuitous route before bringing it to the isolated bridge over the Apalachee River at Moore’s Ford, on the border of Walton and Oconee counties. Twelve to fifteen armed white men stopped the car, violently removed the four African Americans, and hung a noose around Roger Malcom’s neck. Within minutes all four had been dragged down the embankment and shot dead, their bodies pierced by scores of bullet holes. There is some evidence that the white murderers may have initially planned on killing only Roger Malcom, but when one of the African American women spoke to the white ringleader by name, the Klansman decided to kill all four.

FBI Reward poster, 1946. Courtesy of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
FBI Reward poster, 1946. Courtesy of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The lynchings attracted national attention, first in the black press and then in the mainstream white media. A large reward was offered for information. Disturbed that a returning serviceman had been killed, President Truman ordered an FBI investigation. He later asserted that the murder was the final factor leading to his order to desegregate the US Armed Forces.21 No indictments were ever brought and the case remains officially unsolved.

In 1991 a white witness came forth to describe the details in killing (although he did not identify any of the still living perpetrators). Largely as a result of Associated Press coverage, a multiracial local group formed. The Moore’s Ford Memorial Committee sought both justice and reconciliation, and over the years has sponsored public hearings, scholarship banquets, and film screenings. Still no indictments have resulted.

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The Moore's Ford Reenactments:

In spring 2005, senior figures in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference proposed a reenactment of the Moore’s Ford lynching. As one activist, whom I shall call "James," said, “We need some shock therapy to move things forward. White folks are just in a state of denial on this case, and this’ll be something nobody can ignore.” His friend Walter added, “white folks love their Civil War reenactments, which is mainly one big fantasy about the Lost Cause being so noble, so why not reenact some real history for a change?” Organizers hoped that a reenactment would encourage long-intimidated witnesses to come forward and identify the surviving killers.

Working with several African American politicians, local residents quickly organized a reenactment event, to take place that July on the fifty-ninth anniversary of the killings. The event was highly controversial within the Moore’s Ford Memorial Committee, and members remain divided over its wisdom. Although organized hurriedly, the July 2005 reenactment captured national press attention, including a prominent article in the New York Times as well as CNN coverage.

In some respects this was the most dramatically interesting of all the reenactments; at the last minute, the white people who had volunteered to play the murdering Klansman backed out, so a group of African American men had to play the white killers. Some wore white cloth coverings over their heads, others wore store-bought white masks.

The daylong event began with a commemorative rally in the sanctuary of First African Baptist Church of Monroe, where civil rights activists including Rev. Joseph E. Lowry and Rev. Jesse Jackson spoke. The group drove by motorcade to the site of the Hester farm where the initial stabbing took place, then to the jail in downtown Monroe where Roger Malcolm was bailed out, and then to the Moore’s Ford Bridge where the killings were staged. At each stop two African American organizers narrated the events via megaphone.

At the Moore’s Ford Bridge, the Klansmen dragged the four African Americans down the embankment to the glade. There they were “shot” repeatedly, as fire crackers were lit, and fake blood poured over the prone bodies.

In contrast to Civil War reenactments, reenactors did not wear period dress or use period-appropriate automobiles. The most authentic thing about the first reenactment was the use of actual (empty) firearms by the men playing the Klansmen. In initial years, the Klansman wore signs or headbands saying KKK; in summer 2008 they simply wore white T-shirts. In 2009 they wore street clothes. From 2006 onwards white persons, many of them Atlanta-based peace and justice activists have played the Klansman.

African American residents of Walton County usually portray the victims (some of them distant kin). None of the performers have acting experience. Since recruiting white men has proven difficult, white women often portray Klansmen. For several years, a prominent white peace activist served as theatrical director. In 2009 and 2010, however, the event was under African American direction.

Ellen Schattschneider, Volunteer performer reenacts gubernatorial campaign speech of the sort given by Eugene Talmadge in the summer of 1946, courthouse annex in Monroe, Georgia, July 25, 2009.
Ellen Schattschneider, Volunteer performer reenacts gubernatorial campaign speech of the sort given by Eugene Talmadge in the summer of 1946, courthouse annex in Monroe, Georgia, July 25, 2009.

Other than journalists and scholars, very few white persons have attended the reenactments as audience members. (The white participants, who play Klansmen, gubernatorial candidate Eugene Talmadge, or Talmadge's cheering white supporters, usually come from Atlanta and Athens and are not Walton County residents.) Each year the reenactment generates a great deal of local press and television coverage, so most adult residents of Walton County are aware that it takes place, but very few local whites choose to attend. Opinion of the reenactment varies strongly among residents of Walton, Oconee and Clark counties. So far as I can tell, most local African Americans are supportive of it, and most local whites tend to express reservations about it. Yet there are significant exceptions. The white family on whose property the reenactments take place each year have been highly supportive of the event, and have made sure that a gate in their fence line allows audience members easy access to the lower clearing by the river when the firing squad is assembled. A local white business leader, who has given financial help to memorialize the killings and who quietly supports the reenactment, opines that his fellow white citizens "sometimes need to be hit by a two by four to pay attention to the real history of what was done to black people in this county." He has not, however, yet attended any of the performances.

As in previous years, the 2009 reenactment began with a commemorative event held in the sanctuary of the First African Baptist Church in Monroe, with civil rights leaders and community activists delivering speeches.22 The reenactors were presented and then headed off to their places of performance. A caravan traced the route: first out to the Hestertown farm where the initial stabbing occurred. (For several years the stabbing was reenacted at Hestertown, but in 2008 this episode was suspended out of concern of sparking renewed violence in a volatile setting.) The convoy then returned to the old Monroe jail to to witness the bailing out of Roger Malcolm. As costumed white women cheered, an incendiary racist speech by Eugene Talmadge, of the sort he gave during the violent summer of 1946, was reenacted near the jail. Roger was bailed out by the white farmer, and he and Dorothy embraced before getting into the automobile. The witnesses drove out to Moore’s Ford Bridge, where they waited for the car. In previous years, the crowd had milled around chatting, but in 2009, an Atlanta pastor led the singing of freedom songs.

Around five o’clock the crowd parted as the car arrived. The lead Klansman marched across the bridge, pounded on the car hood and shouted, “We want that nigger!”  Klansmen previously hidden in the woods rushed in. They wrestled out Roger, beat him, and placed a noose around his neck. They removed George Dorsey and beat him. Other Klansmen dragged a visibly pregnant Dorothy down the embankment. (In 2009 and 2010 one of the Klansman dragging Dorothy was played by an African American woman, wearing a blond wig.) 

In the glade by the river the four victims were roped together. TV camera crews and videographers jostled for places. Ignoring the pleas of the four African Americans, the Klansmen aimed and shot, and the victims fell.  They shot them again at close range as firecrackers simulated gunshots. Then Klansmen poured blood over the prone victims.

One of the most dramatic, and controversial moments in the reenactment came with the staged cutting out of a seven month old fetus from the abdomen of the actress playing Dorothy Dorsey. In 2007 the baby was triumphantly held up by a Klansman. In the audience, I heard someone say, “White man the devil.” “Worse’n the devil,” added another person. In 2008 and 2009, the display of the bloody fetus was performed in a more muted fashion, in part because of protests voiced by white feminist participants, who were worried that excessive focus on the fetus played into local anti-abortion politics, and out of concerns over the historical accuracy of the claim that Dorothy was pregnant at the time of her murder.

From 2006-09 the reenactment concluded as a local African American woman sang Thomas A. Dorsey's “Precious Lord,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s favorite hymn, over the prone bodies:

Precious Lord, take my hand
Lead me on, let me stand
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn
Through the storm, through the night
Lead me on to the light
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home

Ellen Schattschneider, Singing over the bodies, Moore's Ford, Georgia, 2009.
Ellen Schattschneider, Singing over the bodies, Moore's Ford, Georgia, 2009.

In 2007 she was asked by organizers to wear a white, angelic dress as she sang; in 2008 and 2009 she wore an ‘ordinary’ dress. As she sang, scores of onlookers rushed forward to photograph the “dead” bodies lying on the ground, in a moment that, to some troubled viewers, recalls the gruesome history of photography of spectacle lynchings from the 1880s onwards.23

In contrast to previous years, in 2009 as photographers photographed the bodies, a pastor recited a prayer into the megaphone. Finally, the victims stood and were comforted and cleaned by other performers and stage hands. There was a good deal of tearful embracing. In 2008, the reenactor playing George Dorsey remarked, somewhat wonderingly, “We come back to life, we come back to life.”

After the “killings,” participants and witnesses were invited to First African Baptist in Monroe for a meal and fellowship. Many gathered on the church’s front steps where a man who had recently moved back into the area shared materials related to a lynching in his own family which he believes was captured in a photograph from the “Without Sanctuary” collection.

The July 2010 reenactment made a few alterations from previous years. None of the performers who had played lynching victims were willing to do so this year, so four young people were hurriedly recruited from Athens. Perhaps due to the heat, media fatigue, and confusion over the scheduling, attendance was much lower, and no television or radio journalists were present. At the last minute, the lead organizer, a Georgia state representative whom I will call "Thomas Boyd," decided that audience members should park about a quarter mile from the lynching site and walk en masse to the river singing freedom songs. He also decided that the audience should not assemble on the road near the bridge, but instead should gather on a grassy glade directly in front of the “firing squad” area. Rather to the performers’ surprise, no audience members could witness the carefully rehearsed wrestling of the victims out of the car by the Klansmen. Audience members only heard the shouts of the Klansmen and screams of the victims echoing through the woods until the actors appeared in the glade where the shooting took place.

During rehearsal on the riverbank that morning, the two male victims, who had never attended the reenactment, were directed by a local activist, William Mason, who as a young man had been an Atlanta gang member. He told the two young men that as they were dragged to their deaths to devote their energies to “protecting their women.” He also advised that they remain defiant to the end. “Shout out, ‘You will not be forgiven for this!’” They followed his advice, sheltering the women from the Klansmen’s blows and crying out resolutely as they fell.

Due to confusion, the scheduled singer of “Precious Lord,” a male church elder, did not come out of the crowd to sing over the prone bodies. The lead organizer prevailed upon a young girl who sang the hymn, in a gentle, soft voice. No benediction was recited as spectators gathered around the bodies to take photographs.

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Dreamscapes and Interpretation:

My descriptions of the reenactment do not begin to convey the emotional complexity of this annual event. Participants and witnesses describe the experience of performing or seeing the reenactment as being in a kind of “dream,” or as being trapped within a “nightmare.” I have come to think of this ritual event as resting upon a vast and turbulent psychic geography of suffering and loss, an emotional cartography not easily articulated by those who traverse it, but hinted at by the dreams and visions reported by participants and witnesses.

Timothy, a white man in his fifties, played a Klansman in the 2007 reenactment. At the July 2008 rehearsal, when the director asked him to take the role of the lead Klansman who orders the actual killings Timothy turned to me and said, “Let me not drink from this cup,” but reluctantly consented. An experienced marksmen and hunter, during the rehearsal he explained to the other white reenactors how to handle firearms convincingly. Timothy grew up some miles down the Apalachee River from the Moore’s Ford site and has come to think that an uncle might have been one of the Moore’s Ford killers.

On the afternoon of the reenactment and a few minutes before the car arrived, Timothy and his young “sidekick” James were chatting on the bridge. He seemed a man transformed, clutching his rifle. He bristled when my wife Ellen and I approached holding our video cameras. He seemed to have forgotten who we were and angrily ordered us off the bridge. A half hour later, after the event was concluded, he came to us to chat in his usually friendly manner. He explained that he couldn’t recall what had happened throughout the reenactment. “It’s a horrible thing to do,” he said, “I was not there. I’d say it's a fugue state. I’m still a little bit in shock. It’s not somewhere that you want to inhabit.”

The night before the reenactment Timothy had a nightmare. He had been given an enormous writhing cobra and told to take care of it. The snake struck him, sinking its fangs deep into his right side. The spot he pointed to, it occurred to me, corresponded to the site where Jesus was lanced by the Roman soldier. Like a half dozen of the 2009 Klansmen, Timothy could not bring himself to participate in the subsequent year’s reenactment.

A different kind of beast stalks the imagination and nightmares of Pamela, an African American woman in her fifties who is locally recognized as one of the closest family members of the lynching victims. Although active in Moore’s Ford memorial activities over the years, Pamela has become disenchanted with the reenactments. She senses that an enduring force of rage and hate resides under the bridge compelling the re-staging of the event. “As blood cries out for blood,” she says, “hate cries out for hate.”

Like others, Pamela senses a brooding presence. Once, as she approached the bridge, an unusually large buck deer emerged slowly from the woods and stood on the road staring at her. She associated this deer with the unquiet, tortured soul of one of the victims, the legal husband of her mother. “He was,” she says, “a mean and violent man.” Pamela speculates that the malevolent power under the bridge has harmed African American and white residents of Walton County trapped in cycles of violence, drug addiction, and incarceration. From under the bridge, the beast of Pamela’s visions reaches towards her own family members.

Pamela has been deeply moved by the work of the Atlanta-based, African American artist Kevin Sipp. Sipp notes that many of the young Atlanta gang members with whom he works are plagued by a persistent nightmare in which they are chased by an invisible mob intent on killing them in horrific ways. Sipp believes the gang members are reborn souls of those who were lynched, whose wounded spirits seek to inflict the very pain that killed them. A literal reenactment of violent death, Pamela fears, encourages cycles of violence, the “very dangers that are stalking our young black men.” As an alternative to the reenactment, Pamela has contemplated a ceremony for healing the land at Moore’s Ford, perhaps centered on the bottle trees sculpted by Sipp, bearing ‘strange fruit,’ that would provide a resting place for the murdered.

State representative Boyd, the principal reenactment sponsor, has his own dream visions. The week before the 2008 reenactment he reported a repeating dream in which he heard a voice, which he believed came from the Lord, telling him that the unborn Malcom baby boy needed a name. “And that name, I was told, was Justice. Justice Malcom.” He passed along this story to the print media and on radio, and sermonized about it at the First African Baptist Church in Monroe on the day of the reenactment. “We now name this baby Justice, denied Justice in death, he is accorded Justice in the hereafter." Close family members, including Pamela, later took great exception to the naming of the baby by a non-family member and protested in the local media.

Representative Boyd finds in the reenactment a narrative of continuity with an emphasis on kinship bonds among men. In the face of the centuries of violence against black manhood, he receives a vision of a lost male child, returned to the living against all odds. Through the ritual process, the struggle for “Justice” gives birth to a male issue that bears its name. His personal vision promises the restoration of an idealized patriarchal African American family, delivering a posterity that had seemed to be violently truncated. Through his dream narrative Fatherhood and proper generational succession are restored. In the complex kinship dynamics in these narratives, conventional distinctions between victim and perpetrator, self and other, love and hate, fear and longing, are continually eroded.

The work of ritual upon these potent “dreamscapes” requires physical elements that can be transacted and manipulated. Two highly charged objects--the automobile in which the victims are transported, and the doll used to represent Dorothy Dorsey’s unborn baby--help to mediate relations between the realms of the living and the non-living.

Ellen Schattschneider, Arrival of car, Moore's Ford, Georgia, 2009.
Ellen Schattschneider, Arrival of car, Moore's Ford, Georgia, 2009.

Each year, the Atlanta-based sponsors of the reenactment, including prominent African American political figures in Georgia, insist that the automobile that carries the victims to their death should be a period-authentic vintage vehicle. Yet most years, the local African American organizers have quietly arranged for a locally-owned and well-loved vehicle, a 1977 Lincoln Town Car. The choice is challenging, since this particular car is mercurial and there’s considerable anxiety each year over whether or not its engine will actually turn over at the crucial moment.

The Town Car belongs to William Mason, who in 2010 directed the rehearsal at the riverside. William has roots in Walton County, but grew up on the “rough streets” of Atlanta. He proudly explains that the year before the first reenactment he spied the 1977 car sitting up on blocks in the front yard of a local white man whom he gradually persuaded to sell it. “That white man never did think I’d ever get it running again. That’s why I got it for practically nothing!. . . It belongs in the reenactment. That’s why it came to me I think.”

At the first reenactment in 2005, William played the role of the white farmer Lloyd Harrison, and drove the Town Car, with the four victims, to the bridge. In subsequent years, various white men have played the farmer, but in nearly all cases William’s car has been used.

Come summer 2009, Representative Boyd insisted there would be a historically realistic car. “People need to see the way this really was. No ghetto cruisers that can barely start. . . . This is going to a vintage car, and I’ll personally pay for renting one from any movie studio.”

Initially, William, a long time member of the Moore’s Ford Memorial Committee, agreed that his car shouldn’t be used. Many of the organization’s white members and some of its black ones were opposed to the reenactments, which they believe fundamentally undercut efforts at cross-racial reconciliation. William had hoped to maintain neutrality and peace in the group by not offering up his car.

Yet, the local Walton County organizers continued to show a deep attachment William’s car and simply were not interested in period-specific verisimilitude. Nick, who has been researching the case since the 1960s and who serves as the leading local organizer, quietly visited William and prevailed on his long-time friend to lend his car. So the Lincoln again occupied pride of place in 2009. One of the organizers explained,

Well, [William], you see. He’s one of us. . . . He has kin all over the county. People know him and they know that car of his. This thing, this lynching, it burned a hole right into the soul of this county. . . People see William’s car, they just know this thing happened to real people, not somebody in the history books. It could happen again to anybody, if we don’t hold together.

Local activists feel that historical verisimilitude is vital in all cinematic renditions of the lynching.24 They were concerned about the historical mistakes in the Moore's Ford episode of Keith Beauchamp’s docudrama series “Murder in Black and White" which incorrectly depicted the victims riding in the back of a pickup truck. As one elderly community member insightfully remarked after a screening:

I understand Keith wanted to show, oh, black people had to ride in the back of the truck, like they were cattle or something. But you know it wasn’t always that way, sometimes, so much of the time, there was something that seemed like kindness back then, you thought, all right, this man is going to take care of me, he’s putting me right inside his car and just talking to me. . . . Of course, you never knew where he was taking you. That was the point about life back then, you never knew. . . . So I think the movie misses that part, somehow, by putting them in the back of the truck.

The organizers of the reenactment strive to avoid any appearance of distance between the 1946 tragedy and the present moment. As Alice, who sometimes plays one of the murdered women, states,

I can’t tell you all the pain I feel inside of me, knowing what happened to those poor souls that day. When I’m lying down there in the mud by the bridge, its like no time has passed. This could happen to anyone, my brother, my son, my grandchildren. This thing, it happened then, but its still happening.

Similarly, Jane, who for the past two years has played the other murdered woman, the pregnant Dorothy Dorsey, explains that she does this to honor the memory of her own son, who was slain on the streets of Atlanta some years ago in a black-on-black drug-related shooting. “All this killing, this lynching, it haunts us still. That’s why we need to be here, to bear witness, to remember. Otherwise the killing just keeps on going on.”

Jane gives public lectures to African American youth on the dangers of black-on-black violence, pleading with young men to get themselves off the streets. She has encased Martin’s bloodstained shirt in glass, along with his photographs, and carries this assemblage around to schools. For Jane and her friends the doll of the fetus is closely associated with her own lost son.25 Significantly, Jane uttered the evocative line--“this reenactment. . . lets us hold on. We’re holding on to those who can’t be held”--as she was cradling the doll in her arms.

Ellen Schattschneider, Doll representing the fetus of Dorothy Dorsey, Moore's Ford, Georgia, 2009.
Ellen Schattschneider, Doll representing the fetus of Dorothy Dorsey, Moore's Ford, Georgia, 2009.

Many African American reenactors explain that they are motivated by an intense curiosity to “figure out” what motivated the perpetrators, to understand how a “man could behave in such a way” and to understand “just what the victims felt like on that day.” William drove his car during the first reenactment, when all the Klansmen were played by local black men wearing white masks. “You know,” he says, “I got that car off a white man. And driving the car that day I really had to think what a white man felt like, driving that car, taking our people to their deaths. Really made me think, you know?”

The Moore’s Ford reenactors grapple each year with ethical challenges. They strive to honor the dead, to reveal unspeakable moments of terror, while at the same time acknowledging that the ultimate experience of terror, as known by victim and perpetrator, are beyond representation. As Nick remarks, “No one can know what they felt that day, only God can know that. But we have to try, we have to try.” At the same time, the participants struggle with the mysteries of death and life, passing through horror each year, and finding a way back into the flow of everyday life.

Significantly, at the conclusion of the 2010 reenactment, after she and the other victims had been “restored to life,” Jane placed the doll on the front seat of the car, facing front, so that photographers could have ready access to it. She did not place it in on the back seat, where the lynching victims had sat, but up front—oriented towards a new future.

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Conclusion:

“We come back to life now, we come back to life,” said Richard in 2008, after playing George Dorsey. Those who had just been playing at being dead were alive again, re-integrated back into the world of the living.

For all the undeniable anguish and trauma experienced by the performers, they are powerfully re-enlivened by the reenactment. Its deep appeal rests in part on the way it allows for moving back and forth between the perspectives of victim and perpetrator, white and black, actor and acted upon, living and dead. A participant may simultaneously experience the suffering of an African American female victim facing the hour of her death, as well as the adrenaline rush of the violent white Klansmen.

In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes ponders the mystery of a photograph of a condemned man on the eve of his execution: “he is dead, and he is going to die."26 Here perhaps is the enduring, seductive enigma of the Moore’s Ford reenactment, which so viscerally engages both its friends and its foes. In this uncanny spectacle, we come to apprehend, in disturbing intimacy, those who are dead, and just about to die, those who murder and those who suffer, those who come back to life, and those forever consigned to the outer darkness. We are given a chance to move among the unspoken nightmare of our common history, and to be suspended somewhere, for an instant and an eternity, in that shadow zone that hovers between this home on earth and our dreamed-of eternal home--suspended between sleep, wakefulness and our buried lives.

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Recommended Resources:

Acknowledgements: I am grateful for the many persons in Walton County and environs who have shared their diverse perspectives on the Moore’s Ford killings and the reenactment. I am especially grateful to the reenactment participants and organizers for their time and generosity.  It is my hope that in this essay I honored the trust they have placed in me. Ellen Schattschneider assisted me in my research; the interpretations presented in this essay have emerged, in large measure, out of conversations with her. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the MARIAL Center on February 4, 2010; I acknowledge the thoughtful comments from the audience, especially from Bradd Shore, Lynn Linnemeier and Kevin Sipp and am grateful for insights into ritual and reenactment from Pete Richardson and Rick Parmentier. I also am grateful for careful readings by Allen Tullos, the Southern Spaces editorial staff, and the anonymous readers for Southern Spaces.

 

Links:

Auslander, Mark. "'Return to Sender': Confronting Lynching and Our Haunted Landscapes." Southern Changes. Vol. 24, no. 1-2 (2002): 4-7.
http://beck.library.emory.edu/southernchanges/article.php?id=sc24-1-2_003&keyword=moore%27s

Commemorative Art on Lynching: Kevin Sipp and Keith Morris Washington
http://www.brandeis.edu/ethics/events/past/tellingthestory/exhibition.html

Reenactor.net
http://reenactor.net/

2009 Reenactment footage
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1GCQi2jhre4

Print Material:

Allen, James. Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America. Santa Fe: Twin Palms Publishers, 2000.

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida. tr. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1981.

Baudrillard, Jean. Symbolic Exchange and Death. London: Sage, 1993.

Blackmon, Douglas A. Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black People in America from the Civil War to World War II. New York: Doubleday, 2008.

Blatti, Jo. "Field to Factory: Afro-American Migration, 1915-1940." Oral History Review. Vol. 16, no. 1 (1988): 194-205.

Correia, Alice. "Interpreting Jeremy Deller's The Battle of Orgreave." Visual Culture in Britain. Vol. 7, no. 2 (2006): 93-112.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: The Will to Knowledge. London: Penguin, 1988.

Handler, Richard and Eric Gable. The New History in an Old Museum: Creating the Past at Colonial Williamsburg. Durham: Duke University Press, 2002.

Horton, James Oliver. "Presenting Slavery: The Perils of Telling America's Racial Story." The Public Historian. Vol. 21, no. 4 (1999): 19-38.

Nielsen, Inge. Cultic Theatres and Ritual Drama: A Study in Regional Development and Religious Interchange between East and West in Antiquity. Aaruhus, Denmark: Aaruhus University Press, 2002.

Stadler, Gustavus. "Never Heard Such a Thing: Lynching and Photographic Modernity." Social Text. Vol. 28, no. 1 102 (2010): 87-105.

Stier, Oren Baruch. "Different Trains: Holocaust Artifacts and the Ideologies of Remembrance." Holocaust and Genocide Studies. Vol. 19, no. 1 (2005): 81-106.

Tolnay, Stewart and E.M. Beck. A Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynchings, 1882-1930. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995.

Tuner, Rory. "Bloodless Battles: The Civil War Reenacted." The Drama Review. Vol. 24, no. 4 (1990): 123-136.

Wexler, Laura. Fire in a Canebrake: The Last Mass Lynching in America. New York: Scribner, 2003.

Wood, Amy Louis. Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890-1940. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.

Woolfork, Lisa. Embodying American Slavery in Contemporary Culture. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009.

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  • 1. I attended and observed preparations for the Moore’s Ford reenactments in 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010. I have interviewed many participants in the 2005 and 2006 reenactments.
  • 2. For an account of earlier memorial practices at Moore’s Ford see Mark Auslander, "'Return to Sender:' Confronting Lynching and Our Haunted Landscapes.“ Southern Changes, Vol. 24, No. 1-2, 2002, pp. 4-7.
  • 3. Inge Nielsen, Cultic Theatres and Ritual Drama: A Study in Regional Development and Religious Interchange between East and West in Antiquity (Aarhus, Denmark: Aaruhus University Press, 2002).
  • 4. Rory Tuner, “Bloodless Battles: The Civil War Reenacted,” The Drama Review, Vol. 24, no. 4 (1990).
  • 5. Alice Correia, “Interpreting Jeremy Deller’s The Battle of Orgreave,” Visual Culture in Britain, Vol. 7, no. 2 (2006).
  • 6. Oren Baruch Stier, “Different Trains: Holocaust Artifacts and the Ideologies of Remembrance,” Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Vol. 19, no. 1 (2005).
  • 7. Jo Blatti, “Field to Factory: Afro-American Migration, 1915-1940,” Oral History Review, Vol. 16, no. 1 (1988). The exhibition was curated by Spencer Crew and designed by Jim Sims.
  • 8. Handler and Gable report that white reenactors and staff at Colonial Williambsurg tend to minimize the cruelty of the slavery system. Richard Handler and Eric Gable, The New History in the Old Museum: Creating the Past at Colonial Williamsburg (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002): p.225.
  • 9. James Oliver Horton, “Presenting Slavery: The Perils of Telling America's Racial Story,” The Public Historian, Vol. 21, no. 4 (1999): p. 30.
  • 10. The protests against the auction were organized primarily by the local NAACP and SCLC chapters. In her detailed analysis of this episode Lisa Woolfork argues that much of the local African American opposition to the auction was deeply gendered; senior male African American activists and civil rights leaders, she suggests, were offended that the auction was conceived of and planned by female African American professionals at Colonial Williamsburg. Lisa Woolfork, Embodying American Slavery in Contemporary Culture (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009). See also James Oliver Horton, “Presenting Slavery: The Perils of Telling America's Racial Story,” The Public Historian, Vol. 21, No. 4 (1999).
  • 11. In spring 2010 a Lumpkin County, Georgia high school history teacher was placed on leave after her students, planning on creating an anti-racist film about lynching, walked through the school cafeteria wearing Klan robes. See: http://www.wsbtv.com/video/23666938/index.html (accessed October 10, 2010).
  • 12. Amanda Seeman, “Panel, Art Show Address Suffering,” Daily Bruin. Feb. 14, 2006. http://dailybruin.com/2006/02/14/panel-art-show-address-sufferi/ (accessed October 27, 2010).
  • 13. Gustavus Stadler, “Never Heard Such a Thing: Lynching and Phonographic Modernity,” Social Text, Vol. 28, no. 1 102 (2010). On lynching photographs, see James Allen, Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America (Sante Fe: Twin Palms Publishers, 2000); Amy Louis Wood, Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890-1940 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009).
  • 14. All living persons discussed in this paper are referred to by pseudonyms.
  • 15. Jean Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death (London: Sage, 1993).
  • 16. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: The Will to Knowledge (London: Penguin, 1988).
  • 17. Stewart Tolnay and E.M. Beck, A Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynchings, 1882-1930 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995).
  • 18. In common parlance, “lynching” is sometimes spoken of as mob hanging. Many lynchings, however, were conducted through other means, including beatings and shootings. All lynchings are extrajudicial killings perpetrated by at least two persons. In this respect, the Moore’s Ford killings, while larger in scale and later in time than the great majority of American lynchings, do conform to the accepted definition of “lynching.”
  • 19. The authoritative historical account of the Moore’s Ford lynching is Laura Wexler, Fire in a Canebrake: The Last Mass Lynching in America (New York: Scribner, 2003).
  • 20. Douglas A. Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black People in America from the Civil War to World War II (New York: Doubleday, 2008).
  • 21. Wexler, Fire in a Canebrake, 204.
  • 22. I observed and videoed the entire proceedings of the 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010 reenactments. I also attended organizing meetings, rehearsals, and community debriefings.
  • 23. On spectacle lynching, see Amy Wood, “Lynching Photography and the Visual Reproduction of White Supremacy,” American Nineteenth Century History, Vol. 6, no. 3 (2005): 373 – 399.
  • 24. I wish to emphasize that local community disagreements with the urban-based organizers of the reenactments, over issues such as the age of the vehicle, were nuanced and low key. Nearly all local participants would be extremely reluctant to offer public critique of a figure such as Representative Boyd, whom is widely regarded in the Georgia African American community as a hero of the civil rights struggle.
  • 25. It is interesting to note that in 2008 a friend of Jane’s, one of the organizers of the performance, made the doll out of nylon pantyhose. So in that year the doll and Martin’s shirt shared powerful affinities, both were articles of clothing stained with blood.
  • 26. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, tr. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981).