A Lesson from a Lynching

When the call came to several Atlanta churches for volunteers to play the role of white Klansmen in the reenactment of the brutal lynching of two black couples at Moore’s Ford Bridge 60 years ago, my first impulse was to say no. As a Quaker who opposes violence in all of its forms, I just couldn’t see myself playing the role of a vicious Klansman murdering black people. But when I thought about it more, I realized that this was an opportunity to use the reenactment of violence in the service of nonviolence and reconciliation. So with some very deep misgivings, I decided to volunteer.

The lynching at Moore’s Ford Bridge took place on July 25, 1946, near Monroe, Georgia. Two young black couples, Roger and Dorothy Malcolm and George and Mae Murray, were brutally murdered by a mob of Klansmen 11 days after Roger had been in a fight with a local white man.

The black community in Monroe has been trying to get this case reopened for years but with no success. It is widely believed that several elderly men who still live in Monroe participated in the lynching but have never been prosecuted. The community started the reenactments for the purpose of educating and mobilizing people in the pursuit of justice. In the first reenactment last year, no white people from Monroe would volunteer to play Klansmen so black people had to wear white masks. This year the call went out to Atlanta’s peace and justice community for white volunteers to make the reenactment more powerfully realistic.

So there I was on the bus with my fellow volunteers, my stomach doing nervous flip-flops as we drove down the highway to Monroe. We stopped briefly at the packed African Baptist Church where the community had gathered in preparation for the reenactment. There was some powerful preaching and singing but we had to leave after a short time to get to our rehearsal at the Moore’s Ford Bridge. We spent two grueling hours rehearsing the details of these terrible murders. The organizers kept coaching us to keep our focus on being totally realistic. The two young black couples playing the roles of Roger, Dorothy, George, and Mae told us to be tough on them. Just after 5:30 pm several hundred members of the black community began arriving from the church and gathered around the very place where all of this actually happened on this exact date and time 60 years ago.

This is where things became really difficult. We picked up our unloaded guns and rifles and at the signal began to actually play our roles as Klansmen. The car bearing the two black couples was stopped at the bridge by the head Klansman and his lieutenant. He pounded on the hood of the car and shouted "We want that nigger Roger." We ran out of the woods with our weapons and surrounded the car. Roger was dragged from the car. George came out from the driver’s side to help his friend. We grabbed them, wrestled them to the ground and tied their hands. One of the women in the car screamed, "I know you. I know who you are." The head Klansman yelled out, "Get those bitches," and we dragged them kicking and screaming from the car. They wouldn’t let go so we acted out breaking their arms with our rifle butts. We dragged the men and women down off the road into a field, stood them up and shot them, not once, not twice, but three times (with firecrackers for sound effects).

As they lay there covered in theatrical blood, we had to act out the most gut-wrenching scene of the day for me. We had to jump about hooting and hollering and slapping each other on the back while the head Klansman shouted, "This is a victory for the white race!" Then we froze into a tableau of hatred and violence. After a minute or so, a black woman moved into our midst and began singing "Precious Lord." We moved silently aside as she continued singing over the bodies on the ground.

At the end of the song, we came forward and helped our "victims" up from the ground. This was the moment when I could be myself again and let my emotions out. We embraced and hugged each other and as our tears mingled, I knew that I was in the right place.

This was a powerful lesson for me. In our work for peace and justice, we need to get out of our comfort zones and start taking determined nonviolent action to confront what is wrong in the United States. The question for all of us becomes: If we are comfortable in our work for peace and justice, are we really working hard enough? To win the struggle against injustice, we first have to win the struggle within ourselves between our desire to be comfortable and our willingness to take some risks in order to challenge the unjust use of power. If we can learn this lesson from the reenactment of this terrible lynching, then the deaths of Roger, Dorothy, George, and Mae were not in vain.