They say the wheels of justice turn slowly. After 71 years, new light finally may be shed on one of America’s last mass lynchings–thanks to a persistent Morris County attorney.
A district judge in Georgia on Friday agreed to release grand jury transcripts from a 1946 case that shocked the nation.
“I’m overwhelmed. I didn’t think I’d win,” said Joseph J. Bell, a Rockaway, NJ, lawyer who worked pro bono on this matter for four years, representing author Anthony Pitch.
Grand jury proceedings are secret. But Bell argued that this matter is historically significant, just like cases involving Richard Nixon, the Rosenbergs, Alger Hiss and Jimmy Hoffa. Details of those investigations were made public.
U.S. District Judge Marc T. Treadwell, in Macon, GA, agreed with Bell.
“Nothing favors continued secrecy other than the bare principle that grand jury proceedings should be secret, and while that is important, it is outweighed by the historical significance of the grand jury transcripts and the critical role they can play in enhancing the historical record of the tragic event that occurred at Moore’s Ford,” Treadwell wrote in his 15-page decision.
“Indeed,” the judge continued, “it is difficult to imagine a more suitable case for the application of a historical exception to the rule of grand jury secrecy; of the cases applying the historical exception, none has involved events that took place over 70 years before the disclosure was ordered.”
If the government does not challenge the decision, author Anthony Pitch soon will be sifting through some 5,000 documents for clues to who killed World War II veteran George W. Dorsey his wife Mae Murray, and Roger Malcolm and his wife Dorothy, near the Moore’s Ford Bridge in Walton County, GA, more than seven decades ago.
“I don’t think it will solve the case,” said Pitch, author of The Last Lynching: How a Gruesome Mass Murder Rocked a Small Georgia Town. “But I think it will make us look hard at certain people’s testimony, and we can draw conclusions from that.”
A spokesperson for G.F. “Pete” Peterman III, U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia, said on Monday the government “is reviewing its options on this matter.”
On July 25, 1946, a white mob ambushed and shot the four African Americans as their white sharecropper boss was driving them home, after bailing Malcolm out of jail for an altercation he had with a white farmer.
Judge Treadwell noted that the killings followed a racially charged Democratic gubernatorial primary in Georgia. “Some believe the murders were directly related to that election,” he wrote in his decision.
The FBI interviewed 2,790 people and 106 witnesses testified, according to one account.
Yet nobody was indicted for the murders, suspected to be the work of the Ku Klux Klan.
At the time, FBI officials expressed concerns that witnesses and grand jury members were related, according to Pitch’s research.
Fingering the actual triggermen won’t matter much now, Pitch said, because “everyone involved is almost certainly dead. But it will reveal how corrupt this grand jury was.”
George Dorsey served his country in North Africa and the Pacific theater in World War II, and the murders sparked so much outrage that President Harry Truman established the President’s Committee on Civil Rights.
The incident is believed to be America’s last mass lynching, according to the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative, which has documented nearly 4,000 lynchings in a dozen Southern states between 1877 and 1950.
A spokesperson for EJI could not be reached for comment on Friday.
Pitch, an expert on the Lincoln assassination, discovered the existence of the Georgia transcripts — for decades believed lost, misplaced or destroyed in a flood– in the National Archives in Maryland while researching another project last year.
He met Bell several years earlier, while giving a tour in Washington DC, and they became friends. Pitch said Bell invested countless hours of his own time and made a number of Southern trips at his own expense to win release of the transcripts.
“I think the 18th of August should be remembered for all time as his day. This is a landmark case…I can’t imagine anyone doing a better job,” Pitch said.
“I felt I owed this to my profession,” said Bell, a former Morris County Clerk. “This is shining a light in a dark area that needs to be explored.”
“I want to get to the bottom of this, not only as a journalist, but just to uproot this evil,” the author said. “It’s still around. Just look at Charlottesville.”