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May 14, 2020

Looking Beneath the Smoke: Eugene Talmadge, Moore’s Ford, and the Long Search for Justice

By David Kurlander

Last Sunday, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms commented on the killing of 25-year-old jogger Ahmaud Arbery by a white ex-police officer and his son: “It’s 2020 and this was a lynching of an African American man.” The emerging details from the February 23rd killing in Brunswick, Georgia, resemble so many historical (and horrifyingly recent) extrajudicial murders of African Americans by white vigilantes: the contorting defenses of the perpetrators, the lack of charges (in this case until national outcry), and the resultant cultural battles between enraged champions of civil rights and defensive forces of racism. Between 1880 and 1978, Georgia saw 678 such events, which usually went unreported in the national press. A 1946 brutal mass lynching in north-central Georgia, however, triggered a groundswell against a bigoted governor and a moment of catharsis for the Civil Rights movement…

On July 25th, 1946, near Moore’s Ford Bridge over the Apalachee River, a mob of around twenty white men pulled African American sharecroppers Roger Malcom, his wife Dorothy, her brother George Dorsey, and his wife Mae from their landlord’s car, tied them to a tree, and fired upwards of sixty shotgun rounds into them. The landlord, the wealthy L. Loy Harrison, had paid Roger’s bail bond—Roger had stabbed a white man he believed was involved with Dorothy—and was driving the foursome back home.   

The lead-up to the lynching reveals a complicated legacy of violence. Roger grew up with the man he stabbed, Barnette Hester, and had lived in abject fear of him and his brother Weldon, who nominally oversaw Roger’s work and routinely beat him. George, Dorothy, and Mae were trying to protect Roger amid the risks of retribution that they all understood were grave. George had recently returned from World War II, where he had served as a Duty III Soldier in the South Pacific. They were all in their mid-twenties. Historian Laura Wexler, in her devastating 2003 Fire in a Canebrake, offers a far more detailed and responsible retelling of their relationships than is possible here. 

The killing came at a moment of particular racial tension in Georgia. The populist ex-governor Eugene Talmadge, who had already served three non-consecutive terms, was making a comeback. A 1942 Saturday Evening Post profile traced Talmadge’s use of frenzied rallies to rise through the political hierarchy. At these events, his die-hards, poor white farmers called “wool-hat boys,” would drink whiskey while their candidate delivered florid attacks on the press. “When the big daily newspapers write me up as a great man and a great governor, you can bet your bottom dollar that Talmadge has sold you out,” he told a crowd in 1940.

Talmadge was a virulent white supremacist. Until the War, he listed Hitler’s Mein Kampf among his favorite books. While serving in 1940, he flamboyantly fired University of Georgia Professor Walter Cocking, who had tried to integrate his classes. Talmadge spoke of a large-scale conspiracy related to Cocking’s use of grant money from the Rosenwald Fund, which Talmadge publicly dubbed “Jew money for n_____s.” His attacks backfired and he was unexpectedly defeated by the young establishment lawyer Ellis Arnall, who ran on the slogan “Eliminate the Dictator.” Arnall was a liberal by 1940s white Georgia standards, openly criticizing the Klan and eliminating the poll tax. 

Talmadge’s quest to return to power relied on further radicalizing his base. He found his issue in a 1944 U.S. Supreme Court Case, Smith vs. Allwright, which held that banning African Americans from voting in  state primaries was unconstitutional under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. Rising star lawyer Thurgood Marshall, who would become the first African American to serve on the Court 24 years later, argued convincingly for the petitioner, a black dentist who had sued the Texas Democratic Party Primary.

Almost 135,000 African American Georgians registered to vote in the aftermath of the ruling. Talmadge—well-aware that this coalition could end his career—conspired with local election offices to craft impossible literacy test questions, encouraged Klan members to threaten African American voters, and brought even more ferocity to his racist rhetoric. “Look beneath the smoke and you will see a raging holocaust burning away at the very foundation of our Southern tradition and segregation laws,” Talmadge yelled at one rally. His gambit worked—most African Americans were either denied the right to vote or stayed home out of fear for their lives.

One week after Talmadge won the July 17th primary, the Malcoms and Dorseys were lynched. Editorials blaming Talmadge’s rhetoric flooded newspapers across the country. Seventeen-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote a letter to the editor of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, demanding for African Americans “some of the same courtesy and good manners that we ourselves bring to all human relations.” 

Direct action in Washington D.C. began immediately. Five days after the lynching, fifty African American women representing the NAACP picketed in front of the White House, carrying signs reading “Speak! Speak! Mr. President!” Sure enough, Attorney General Tom Clark read a prepared statement the same day: “President Truman was horrified by the lynching.” By year’s end, Truman had convened the Committee on Civil Rights, which released a small but pioneering report about voting rights and racial violence in 1947.  

Talmadge still won the governorship. His only lackluster statement on the lynching was that it was “regrettable” and that he would “keep atrocities to a minimum” during his term. An alcoholic, he died of cirrhosis before he could retake office. The Virginia-based African American newspaper The New Journal and Guide issued this eulogy:

“To be perfectly candid, we do not even ‘regret’ his passing but, to paraphrase him, hope instead that such atrocities as his life constituted will be kept to a minimum in a country that had the inherent decency to fight against his like when they came to power in Germany, Italy, and Japan.” 

The Malcoms and the Dorseys were killed only 75 years ago. Governor Talmadge’s son and ideological heir, Herman, was a United States Senator until 1981. The case itself remains contested; historian Tony Pitch unsuccessfully sued to unseal federal grand jury records after his book on the tragedy, The Last Lynching, bolstered claims that Talmadge himself may have had advance knowledge of the killing. As the quest for answers surrounding the 1946 Georgia lynching continue, America’s immediate mission to find justice in the killing of Ahmaud Arbery makes this history seem all too relevant and all too recent. 

For more on the historical legacy of racism, listen to the Stay Tuned episode with Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson, who has created a massive database focused on documenting lynchings and spearheaded efforts to open The National Memorial for Justice and Peace.

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