Different kind of Memorial Day marks Black soldiers’ deaths in Georgia

Credit: John Cole Vodicka

Credit: John Cole Vodicka

Friday remembrance in Athens shines light on WWII-era veterans killed on Georgia soil.

In November of 1946 — just back from Europe and still in his uniform — U.S. Army veteran Hosea Williams had the audacity to try to get a glass of water at an Americus bus stop.

Just a year earlier, he had spent four months in an army hospital suffering from rheumatic fever, before nearly getting crippled after he walked into an ambush that killed every member of his all-Black unit.

None of that seemed to matter as the white mob beat him within an inch of his life. So bad was the beating that a Black undertaker was summoned to peel his lifeless body off the pavement. The undertaker found a pulse and took him to a hospital instead of the morgue.

In some ways, Williams was one of the lucky ones.

John Cole Vodicka, a human rights activist and prisoners’ rights advocate, has tracked down the names of at least nine Black World War II veterans and enlisted soldiers who survived the war but were killed at the hands of whites in Georgia.

Names like Maceo Snipes, who was killed in 1946 after voting in Butler. Or George Dorsey, one of four people killed in July of 1946 as part of the infamous Moore’s Ford Bridge killings.

Today, at the Veterans Memorial Plaza in Athens, Vodicka will use the killings, which he said were lynchings, to mark a different kind of Memorial Day. He expects more than 100 people to gather in Athens to say the names of the victims, while also building momentum to build historic markers from the state or the Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative.

“This is an effort to call us all, especially we who are white folks, to acknowledge and seek a way to repair —eventually,” Vodicka said. “These nine men enlisted, perhaps with the hope that fighting for America in the ‘war to destroy fascism and preserve democracy’ would earn them the respect and human dignity at home.”

Hank Klibanoff, the director of Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project at Emory University, said the killing of Black veterans on American soil — which was also prevalent after World War I — highlights a fraught relationship with the military.

Credit: Emory University

Credit: Emory University

“So there is the conflict of being asked to go to Europe to fight against tyranny and Nazism when you have to come back to America and face abject racism,” said Klibanoff, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his book, “The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation,” and whose Peabody Award-winning Podcast, “Buried Truths,” tells stories of racial injustice in Georgia, including some Vodicka has highlighted.

In refusing to be drafted into the United States Army in 1967, Muhammad Ali famously said: “My enemy is the white people, not Vietcongs or Chinese or Japanese. You my opposer when I want freedom. You my opposer when I want justice. You my opposer when I want equality. You won’t even stand up for me in America for my religious beliefs and you want me to go somewhere and fight but you won’t even stand up for me here at home.”

In Athens, Vodicka, 75, runs the Athens Area Courtwatch Project, an all-volunteer effort to monitor the Athens-Clarke County criminal legal system. He said what he sees in court drew him to his work in detailing the lynchings.

“If you know of the history of lynching and how it has been used to terrorize, control and keep African Americans in their place, post-Reconstruction and through Jim Crow, in the same sense, our system of mass incarceration does the same thing,” he said.

Vodicka said white Americans feared in the 1940s that Black soldiers would reject their second-class status in the country’s racial hierarchy.

“They became a threat to the country’s — and especially the South’s, and Georgia’s — caste system,” Vodicka said.

After his beating in 1946, Hosea Williams spent eight weeks in the hospital, later becoming a prominent civil rights leader.

Williams’ biographer, Rolundus Rice wrote in “Hosea Williams: A Lifetime of Defiance and Protest,” that Williams “spent hours reflecting on the previous two years of his life.”

“He could not easily decipher any differences between Nazism and racism in the American South,” Rice told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “The beating strengthened his resolve to fight injustice in all forms.”

In a moment of sobering clarity, Williams said, “I fought on the wrong side.”

Here are the stories of the nine Black soldiers and veterans, with details culled from Equal Justice Initiative, New Georgia Encyclopedia, Georgia Historical Society, Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project at Emory University, and AJC archives:

Felix Hall. In February of 1941, Private Hall went missing the day after an argument with his white boss at the Fort Benning sawmill on the U.S. Army base. The 19-year-old’s body was discovered two weeks later in the woods on the base. He had been strung up by the neck in a shallow ravine. His feet were bound by baling wire and his hands were tied behind his back. Of the many Black people who were lynched in America, Hall is the only one known to have been killed on a military installation, according to the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project at Northeastern University, which has extensively researched the case.

Credit: Fort Benning

Credit: Fort Benning

Willie Lee Davis: July 3, 1943. An Army corporal, the 26-year-old Davis was shot and killed by Summit, Georgia Police Chief James Bohannon. Davis was visiting his mother on a two-week-long furlough when the chief put his hands on Davis. The veteran objected and a fight broke out, leading to the murder. No action was ever taken against Bohannon.

George Franks: January 21, 1944. According to an Atlanta Constitution article at the time, “George Franks, 34, Negro, of Ellenwood, GA, was shot and instantly killed last night by policeman G.M. Ellis, reports showed. Franks had been ordered to report to Ft. McPherson (Atlanta) today for induction into the Army. The shooting occurred at 91 Decatur St., when the Negro attempted to slash the policeman with a knife, Ellis reported.” In a letter to the American Civil Liberties Union, an attorney who witnessed the shooting said Ellis initially began beating Franks when he refused to leave a local cafe to allow more white people to enter.

Curtis Hairston: November 1944. Hairston was discharged from the Army after being diagnosed with dementia and returned home to LaGrange. The 21-year-old Hairston was taken from his home by police after an accusation of disorderly conduct from the night before. Hairston’s sister later found her brother dead from a bullet wound to the head at a city dump one block from her home. The police claimed Hairston “came at them with a knife.” Eyewitnesses described the killing as an execution.

Maceo Snipes: July 18, 1946. Having been discharged from the U.S. Army after serving 30 months in the Pacific theater, Snipes was the only Black person to vote in the Democratic primary in Taylor Country. After the election, four white men came to Snipes’ family home, pulled him out to the porch and shot him in the back. The 37-year-old Snipes lived long enough to be refused admittance to the local whites-only hospital. He died two days later.

Credit: The Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project at Emory University

Credit: The Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project at Emory University

George Dorsey: July 25, 1946. A mob of as many as 50 men and women murdered 29-year-old Dorsey along with his wife Mae Murray Dorsey and fellow sharecroppers Roger and Dorothy Malcom below the Moore’s Ford Bridge in Walton County. Private First Class George Dorsey served in the U.S. Army from 1941-45 and fought in the Pacific theater. No one was ever charged, indicted, prosecuted or convicted for the murders and the case is still memorialized annually.

Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Walter Lee Johnson: Sept. 28, 1946. A white streetcar motorman shot and killed Johnson, a 22-year-old honorably discharged U.S. Army veteran, in downtown Atlanta. Johnson spent three years in Europe. The shooter claimed Johnson swore, cursed and attempted to hit him after he got off the streetcar to confront the soldier. He was arrested and charged with “disorderly conduct and shooting another,” but was back at work driving his streetcar the next day.

Joe Nathan Roberts: In June of 1947, Roberts, who was living in Philadelphia and studying at Temple University on the GI Bill, was visiting his family in Sardis. A group of white men confronted Roberts after he allegedly refused to call them “sir.” Later that night the men abducted him from his parents’ home and shot him to death.

Lemuel Penn: July 11, 1964. A retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel, Penn, along with two other reservists, were killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan while driving back to Washington, D.C. after finishing reserves training at Fort Benning in Columbus. On a Broad River bridge on Georgia State Route 172 in Madison County, Georgia, near Colbert, twenty-two miles north of the city of Athens, a group of Klansmen rode up beside Penn’s car and fired shotguns into it, killing Penn instantly.

Credit: Lemuel Penn. Jr.

Credit: Lemuel Penn. Jr.