In black and white

On a hot day in September 1999 in Athens, Ga., Laura Wexler telephoned a couple in nearby Walton County. While researching her book on the gruesome and mysterious 1946 lynching of four African-Americans at the local Moore's Ford Bridge, she had been soliciting interviews all summer long. This call, however, was different. Wexler hoped to speak with the brother of Loy Harrison, the now-deceased key suspect in the last mass-lynching in American history.

Harrison and his wife refused to talk about what happened at Moore's Ford. Instead, they passed the phone to one another, criticizing Wexler and her investigation of the decades-old killings. Finally, Harrison erupted: "I have nothing to say. ... Tell the black folks to shut up." Then he hung up.

Weeks later, Wexler tracked down Harrison's grandson and showed up at his job, where he was supervising a road-work crew. They sat on the back of his pickup truck and talked, until he angrily asked Wexler, who is white, "Why are you trying to make it like those blacks were heroes?"

Clearly, Wexler had hit a raw spot with the people of Walton County. But those uncomfortable moments represented just a few small steps in what would become a five-year journey to uncover the truth about one of America's worst race crimes. Though most area residents resisted her efforts to exhume a long-buried past, Wexler persisted. The result is Fire in a Canebrake: The Last Mass Lynching in America, due out next week from Scribner.

Currently a senior editor at Baltimore's Style magazine, as well as the Baldwin Writer-in-Residence at the College of Notre Dame, Wexler first learned of the crime while working as an assistant editor of Georgia Magazine, the alumni publication of the University of Georgia. Far from home, the Baltimore native had just turned 26 and was building up a writing career that had already proved promising with publications in DoubleTake, The Oxford American, and City Paper. Then she read an article in the student paper about the Moore's Ford Memorial Committee, a group of black and white residents with plans to commemorate the murders of Roger Malcolm (age 24), Dorothy Malcolm (20), George Dorsey (28), and Mae Murray Dorsey (23). The more Wexler looked into the killings the group sought to honor, the more questions arose.

According to what few accounts exist of the incident, it began in July 1946, when Dorothy Malcolm and the Dorseys accepted a ride into town from Loy Harrison, a white landowner, to post bail for Roger Malcolm, who was in jail for stabbing a white man days before. Harrison was driving them all home that same evening, when a gang of white men, armed with shotguns, stopped and surrounded the car on the Moore's Ford Bridge. The mob dragged the four young blacks to a small clearing and riddled their bodies with bullets. The coroner estimated that 60 shots had been fired at close range.

The crime drew brief but nationwide attention, and the outrage that it sparked persuaded President Harry Truman to form the President's Committee on Civil Rights, which called for a federal anti-lynching law, abolition of the poll tax, and other civil rights reforms. But not only were the murderers never caught. despite a lengthy FBI investigation, the lynchings quickly faded from American memory.

"I thought, 'Why don't I know about this?'" Wexler says. Growing up in suburban Baltimore heightened her awareness of racial inequality, she says, but she specifically cites the Rodney King and O.J. Simpson episodes as pivotal events that demonstrated to her how race can alter perceptions of events, as well as the justice that may or may not follow them. "Rodney King," she says, shaking her head. "There was a video of what happened and people still tell different stories."

After a visit to Mae Murray Dorsey's grave, decrepit and overgrown with weeds, Wexler resolved to reopen what she saw as a crucial episode in America's history. "The lynching was an open secret, a public legend," she says. People speculated wildly on "who and why," she notes, but because there was neither physical evidence nor cooperative witnesses, "nobody knew the real story."

Another angle intrigued Wexler as well: The lynchers could still be alive. "I really had this Nancy Drew-like idea," she explains, "that there was still a possibility for justice, that I would ask someone a confrontational question and he would crack under pressure and confess." Her enthusiasm for the project soon caught on with editors at Scribner. Armed with a book contract, Wexler devoted the next five years — three of them full-time — to the project that would become Fire in a Canebrake.

Her research included more than 100 interviews, in addition to uncounted hours going through records at the Georgia Historical Society and the National Archives, and listening to NBC radio broadcasts from the night of the lynchings. But by far her biggest break came when she uncovered an uncensored copy of the FBI's report on the killings. It revealed whom the FBI had interrogated at the time, including the sole witness, Loy Harrison, whose relatives she interviewed during that particularly hot September in 1999. (Claiming not to have recognized any of the lynchers, Harrison was suspected of having led the victims into an ambush.)

Interviewing for the book proved more difficult. In questioning those who were still alive, as well as anyone connected to the deceased, Wexler found that members of both races were wary. "The older blacks were reluctant to talk," she says, "and the older whites didn't want the story to be told at all." Many of the whites she interviewed did not consider the lynching a landmark event, she explains; some black interviewees, on the other hand, had what Wexler calls "a legitimate fear of being misrepresented by a white writer." She enlisted the help of local civil-rights leaders to approach members of the black community, but had less success in finding liaisons to the tight-lipped white residents. "I resorted to dropping in uninvited or making cold calls," she remembers, and the response was often a hostile, "No."

After her research was finished, Wexler then had to prepare for the challenge that faced her as a young, novice writer. In time, she would rewrite the entire book eight times. "I learned so much about writing by writing this book," she says, "like the fact that you need to rewrite something many times before you really know what it's about."

But there's yet another situation that she expects will only worsen after Fire in a Canebrake hits bookshelves next week: She is a white writer portraying what some would call a "black subject." Although Wexler would insist it is an American one, she's certain that audiences — both black and white — will question her authority. Some black bookstores have even refused to carry the book. Others will question her objectivity: She expects a planned reading at the Walton County Public Library to be confrontational to say the least, as many interviewees, unhappy about how they've been depicted, will attend. Still others will accuse her of profiting from the mass murder. "It'll be interesting to see what stories will be told about the book," she says.

Despite the controversy that attends its arrival, though, Fire in a Canebrake has already received critical acclaim, getting early praise for its suspenseful narrative and evocations of racial tension in the pre-civil rights South. The book also makes startling revelations about the 56-year-old lynchings, including the assertion that Clinton Adams — a white man who, in a book and a spot on Oprah, recently stepped forward with claims that he witnessed the crime and could identify the killers — was lying. "The desire for closure, which is a strong as a desire as exists," she writes, led everyone, including the FBI, to accept Adams' account without question, despite the holes in his story.

Wexler admits that the murderers' identities remain unknown, but in the end, she maintains, names and convictions are not really what Fire in a Canebrake is about. "Basically, this book is about the fact that race prevents us from finding a final truth," she says. "We've all been taught a script, and that script depends on certain stories continuing to be told."

The Moore's Ford lynchings erected a barrier between the black and white communities of Walton County: Some thought it meant nothing; to others, it meant everything. "Everyone had an interest in telling the story a certain way," Wexler says. It's a notion that she gives the most eloquence in her book when, in explaining that the identities of the killers will probably never be known, Wexler wonders "if that unanswered question, that void at the center, isn't the truest representation of race in America."

Susan Muaddi Darraj writes for City Paper, where this review first appeared. Send comments to [email protected].

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