WASHINGTON — To place today's racial tensions in perspective, you must remember this: Back in the day, post-lynching souvenir hunting — fragments from the hanging tree; victims' body parts — was a hobby for some. A student who found a victim's tooth at Moore's Ford Bridge in July 1946 gave it to his girlfriend for her charm bracelet. The past really is another country.
On July 25, 1946, Roger Malcom, a black 24-year-old, was released from jail on bail after the charge against him was reduced from murder to attempted murder because the white man he had stabbed during an altercation was going to live. Malcom, his wife and another black couple were being driven home by the white farmer who had posted the bail, and who before the lynching was heard to say, "All these damn (N-word) been to the army and come back and think themselves something." The car was stopped by more than 20 armed white men, none of them masked, at the bridge over the Apalachee River about 50 miles from Atlanta. The mob evidently planned to murder only Malcom until his wife called out the name of someone in the mob, which then took both couples to the riverbank and shot them all at least 60 times.
The South was simmering in 1946, as nearly half a million African American soldiers returned to the region with uniforms, decorations and attitudes dangerous to social norms of subjugation. On Feb. 12, Sgt. Isaac Woodard Jr. was blinded by a South Carolina police chief who slammed his nightstick into Woodard's eyes, news of which horrified President Harry Truman. On Feb. 25, a veteran's insufficient deference ignited a riot that destroyed the black business district in Columbia, Tennessee.
On May 9 in Georgia, the Ku Klux Klan staged a mass cross-burning on Stone Mountain. After a 1944 U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning all-white primaries, black Georgians were eligible to vote on July 17, and Eugene Talmadge, who bragged of flogging his black farm workers, was campaigning (successfully) for a fourth term as governor, warning that if he lost, white politicians would henceforth have to "go to (blacks') homes and knock on their doors with hat in hand, shake hands with all of them, and kiss the babies."
FBI agents questioned 2,790 locals in the Moore's Ford killings, filled 10,000 pages of investigative reports and issued 106 subpoenas to a December grand jury (21 white men; two black men). It concluded: "We have been unable to establish the identity of any person" in that mob of undisguised men who called one another by their names, and whose leader, according to the driver of the car, said, "Git them women. Bring 'em over here. They know too much."
This story, or as much of it as can presently be known, is meticulously told in "Fire in a Canebrake: The Last Mass Lynching in America" (2003) by Laura Wexler, who picked up the baton of the late historian Anthony Pitch. Wexler is supporting the effort of Joseph J. Bell, a New Jersey lawyer, to make public the only extant information about this atrocity: the grand jury records. In 2017, a federal court ruled that those records should be unsealed. In March, however, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit held that federal courts have no authority over district courts' supervision of grand jury proceedings. There is, however, disagreement among the circuits, so there will be an appeal to the Supreme Court.
Government secrecy is essential to protect the sources, methods and fruits of intelligence-gathering, and to facilitate deliberative processes. But all government secrecy is, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, regulation. Most regulations tell us what we cannot do; secrecy tells us what we cannot know. Regarding Moore's Ford, we cannot know about the social dynamics that obstructed justice in the most lurid crime in the year that lit the fuse that blew up Jim Crow.
In 2011, Attorney General Eric Holder's Justice Department recommended amending the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure "to allow district courts to permit the disclosure, in appropriate circumstances, of archival grand-jury materials of great historical significance." The reasons for grand jury secrecy are compelling, Holder said, but "do not forever trump all competing considerations." And "most other categories of historically significant federal records, including classified records, eventually become part of the public historical record."
Today, Bell, Wexler and others ask about the Moore's Ford lynching: When is a cold case that should be, but is not, part of our national memory too cold to learn more about? Their correct answer: never.
George Will can be reached at email@example.com.