OPINION: Can a small Georgia town overcome a 76-year racial divide?

Local woman hopes understanding the impact of the last mass lynching in the country is a step toward healing

Credit: Stephanie Calabrese

Credit: Stephanie Calabrese

For 76 years, residents of Monroe in Walton County have straddled a deep racial divide.

The town of 14,900 about 50 miles east of Atlanta has suffered the lingering impacts of the 1946 Moore’s Ford lynching when a white mob killed two black couples just outside of the city.

Silence among white residents who could have identified the killers has made justice unlikely, but one local hopes telling the story will encourage more residents to talk about how the crime has impacted their community.

“I believe people in this community want to get along and they want to like each other … but it is just easier not to talk about it, said Stephanie Calabrese, 53, who moved to Monroe in 1996. Her documentary, “Unspoken,” which highlights the 1946 lynching premieres at the Macon Film Festival on August 20.

As a resident of Monroe, Calabrese felt she had a responsibility to understand the town’s history and share it. “It is very easy to whitewash history or make historical stories seem more palatable to us as white people,” said Calabrese.

Credit: Stephanie Calabrese

Credit: Stephanie Calabrese

When she began research for the documentary, Calabrese could not find much information about the Moore’s Ford lynching in Monroe Library or Monroe Museum. Though some residents had been memorializing the tragedy for more than 20 years and in 1999, the Georgia Historical Society had installed a marker off U.S. highway 78 in remembrance of the victims, not everyone in town is interested in remembering.

“It is not something that we talk about here. If you bring it up, people raise their eyebrows, talk in whispers or step away,” Calabrese said.

In July 1946, two couples, George and Mae Murray Dorsey along with Roger and Dorothy Malcom were killed by a white mob as they were traveling back to Monroe from the Walton County Jail where Roger Malcom, a sharecropper, had been incarcerated for allegedly stabbing a white overseer.

As the party crossed near the Moore’s Ford bridge, the crowd pulled the men and women from the car, bound and beat them and shot them dead. Dorothy Malcom was believed to have been seven months pregnant.

Dozens of white men participated in the mob and though none were masked, no suspects were ever charged with the crime.

In subsequent decades, investigations by the federal and state bureaus have been closed, reopened and closed again with agencies indicating that most eyewitnesses or suspects have died.

This is a recurring theme in civil rights era cases. Last week, a grand jury in Mississippi declined to indict Bryant Donham on charges of manslaughter and kidnapping. Donham, 88, is the white woman whose accusations led to the death of 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955. Donham would later recant portions of her original account only to later recant her recant.

We have seen how fear and shame surrounding racial injustices leads to decades of silence and drives a wedge between people and communities. The time to speak out about any injustice is when there is still time to make things right.

“As a white person, you see it and you think how can I help combat this? What is my responsibility?” said Calabrese. She realized she had never asked Black people what their lives were like or how they felt about racism in Monroe. “It is an uncomfortable conversation to have,” she said.

Years ago, she began documenting Monroe in photographs but knew the stories would have more impact on film. She conducted about 40 interviews weaving their personal stories into the wider history of the Jim Crow era South.

She wants to impact individual hearts and minds and help viewers understand that events like Moore’s Ford have created the legacy of trauma that still lingers today.

“You can’t assess where we are today and assume, we don’t have problems if we as white people don’t see them,” Calabrese said. Making the film has changed her she said, “I have more of a level of sensitivity for our black community and for what black people across the country have experienced.”

As with the case of Emmitt Till, Moore’s Ford is reaching the point where avenues for justice have grown increasingly narrow.

In 2020, the federal appeals court in Atlanta denied release of the 1946 grand jury transcripts.

There is some hope that the 2018 Civil Rights Cold Case Records Collection Act will offer another pathway to making the documents public. In February, a review board was established to determine if records that were withheld in the past should be released.

Calabrese doesn’t think releasing the transcripts will bring change to the community but she said there are a lot of white residents in Monroe who want to see their community come together.

“I have a deeper love for this community, and I want it to do better,” she said.

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