Sealed transcripts could hold clues in 1946 Moore’s Ford lynching case

The 1946 Moore’s Ford lynching remains one of Georgia’s most notorious acts of racial terror. But an enduring question in the case is this: What happened inside a closed grand jury room to justify no one in the white mob getting charged?

Now, nearly 72 years after the federal grand jury met in Athens to consider the evidence collected in a massive FBI investigation, part of that mystery may be closer to a resolution.

Transcripts from the grand jury proceedings — long purported to be lost or destroyed — have surfaced. The legal battle to determine if they will be publicly released comes to Atlanta on Wednesday.

Historian Anthony Pitch, who wrote a 2016 book about the killings dubbed America’s last mass lynching, was able to locate the documents in the national archives in Washington, D.C. But he’s been in a protracted legal battle to get the U.S. Department of Justice to release the transcripts.

The roughly 1,500 pages of grand jury testimony are among the most significant evidentiary finds since public interest in the case was rekindled 26 years ago following an Atlanta Journal-Constitution article that told the story of a white man who claimed to have witnessed the killings as a young boy.

"The release of the grand jury proceedings would go a long way to helping us understand how it was that justice was denied in this landmark case," said Laura Wexler, who wrote a 2003 book about the lynching. "It is a huge missing piece to the puzzle of the Moore's Ford lynching and American racial violence, in general."

Credit: Associated Press

Credit: Associated Press

The July 25, 1946 lynching of two young, black couples — George and Mae Murray Dorsey, and Roger and Dorothy Malcolm — drew national scorn to Georgia and prompted President Harry S. Truman to send the FBI to Walton County. Agents conducted close to 2,800 interviews in their effort to identify members of the mob of as many as 20 white men who abducted and brutally shot the field hands near the Moore's Ford Bridge at the Walton-Oconee county line.

Almost from the start, the federal investigation was frustrated by a community silence born of white residents inclination to protect their own and black people living in fear. The federal investigation culminated in the grand jury hearing in Athens.

After two weeks of testimony and 106 witnesses subpoenaed, the process ended just days before Christmas 1946 with grand jurors determining they couldn’t identify the killers. The nation moved on, and a transcript was sent to Washington.

When the FBI and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation reopened the case in 2000, investigators searched for the grand jury transcript, but concluded it had been either misplaced or destroyed.

After nearly two decades of frustrated efforts, state authorities in January officially closed the case with no charges after determining all known suspects were dead. The decision coincided with the FBI's decision to shut down its investigation sometime in year before.

GBI Director Vernon Keenan said the grand jury transcript is something his agency would review if it becomes available. He said it’s a critical piece to understanding the case and should be released if the public is to understand this important part of Georgia’s history.

“I don’t believe we will ever know what happened without the transcripts,” he said. “They are a matter of intense historical interest.”

Pitch, a historian based in the Washington D.C. area, reviewed more than 10,000 documents from the FBI and the National Archives in the course of research for his 2016 book, "The Last Lynching: How a Gruesome Mass Murder Rocked a Small Georgia Town." He said he never believed the government's claim that the grand jury records were no longer available, so he petitioned the court in February 2014 to gain access.

A federal judge denied his claim in August 2014, citing the lack of evidence that the transcripts existed. In January 2017, Pitch renewed his effort after the records were located.

Court records from last year reveal that as many as 1,500 pages of transcripts from witness testimony exist.

A federal judge issued an order in August 2017 granting Pitch access to the transcripts, but the Justice Department filed an appeal, citing the secrecy of grand jury testimony and the need to keep the records sealed. Wednesday's appeals court hearing in Atlanta will consider arguments from both sides.

Pitch said the release of the transcripts are important in his search for the truth of who carried out the murders.

“I want to get to the bottom of this,” he said. “This one will be a landmark case if we win. It’s highly significant.”

The four-year court case to gain access to the transcripts has gained little public attention. But descendants of those who were lynched see their release as an important step.

Roger Malcolm’s granddaughter, Atanya Lynette Hayes, is flying in from Toledo, Ohio to be in the courtroom. Her father, Roger Malcolm Hayes, was 2 years old when his father was killed by the white mob.

Relatives moved him to Ohio afterward, and he took the name of his adopted family. He never returned to live in Georgia and the crime that shaped his life remained an open wound until his death in April 2016.

Atanya Hayes said she will be thinking of her father when she enters the courtroom Wednesday. She wants the transcripts released and hopes they will provide clues to help identify the men who killed her grandfather. She hopes it’s a move toward justice, even if those in the mob are dead.

“I”m nervous,” she said. “I’m real nervous. It’s been a long time coming.”

The 1946 Moore’s Ford lynching drew national attention to Georgia after a white mob murdered two black couples in rural Walton County. The sensational case pushed President Harry S. Truman to send in a team of FBI agents to investigate, but no one was ever charged. Publicity in the 1990s, including a major examination of the case by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, rekindled interest in the case and led state and federal authorities to reopen the files. Both the GBI and the FBI announced in the past year that they closed the case after all known suspects were determined to be deceased.