"Holding on to Those Who Can't Be Held": Reenacting a Lynching at Moore's Ford, Georgia

Central Washington University
Published November 8, 2010
Overview 
Ellen Schattschneider, Two reenactors playing Klansmen wait near the Moore's Ford Bridge, Walton County, Georgia, July 25, 2009.
Ellen Schattschneider, Two reenactors playing Klansmen wait near the Moore's Ford Bridge, Walton County, Georgia, July 25, 2009.

Each year since 2005, a group of multiracial activists has reenacted a lynching at Moore’s Ford in rural Georgia in which four young African Americans were murdered in 1946. The stated purpose of the reenactment is to campaign for prosecution of surviving perpetrators and more broadly to call attention to the long national history of violence against persons of color. At more nuanced levels the annual performance speaks to relations between generations, and between the living and the dead. As a ritual enacted by local people, each performance bridges experiences of racial violence and injustice while raising the promise of reconciliation.

Introduction

Map marking Walton County, Georgia
Map marking Walton County, Georgia

For the past half decade I have been fascinated and puzzled by an extraordinary annual event, a reenactment each late July of the horrific 1946 lynching of four young African Americans at Moore’s Ford, near Monroe in Walton County, Georgia. Since 2005 hundreds of people have gathered at several sites in Walton County to watch amateur performers reenact the key events associated with the lynching. At the culminating moment, around 6:00 p.m., a sedan arrives at an isolated bridge, carrying the four African American victims and a driver playing the role of a local white farmer. Other reenactors playing Klansmen emerge from the woods and wrestle the screaming victims out of the automobile and down the embankment, where they are repeatedly shot in front of the audience.

In documenting and trying to understand the varied perspectives on this event, I have attended rehearsals and planning sessions, and have been taken into the confidence of supporters and opponents of the reenactment.1 I count among my dearest friends persons on all sides of controversies over the reenactment.2 I have been deeply torn, and seen my friends torn apart, by bitter arguments over the wisdom and impact of the performance. Does it call necessary attention to a long-suppressed crime? Does it encourage witnesses to come forth, bringing evidence that might contribute to successful prosecution of this six-decades-old cold case? Or does it undermine the work of racial healing and reconciliation undertaken by interracial organizations? Does it unintentionally feed cycles of hatred and retribution, raising the possibility of new acts of violence even as it polarizes those who ought to be in dialogue?

Those who organize and participate in the annual reenactment argue passionately among themselves: Should performers strive for historical verisimilitude by wearing period-appropriate dress and deploying period-appropriate artifacts, including a vintage automobile? Or should they strive only to evoke the “spirit” of the event, wearing regular street clothes and using objects associated with present day experience? What does it mean to reenact a human rights atrocity at the locale where it took place?

Considering Reenactment: Between Ritual, Mythos, and History

Before examining the annual Moore’s Ford events in detail, it is helpful to locate them in the broad history of reenactment, perhaps the oldest genre of human performance, long preceding the emergence of theater. Our early ancestors presumably reenacted remembered movements of hunting and gathering and the foundational acts of ancestors and divinities. All ritual practice may be conceived of as a kind of reenactment, recreating prior ritual action as well as the putative activities of humans and sacral beings. Ritual dramas and masquerades organized by cultic associations in temple complexes and sacred landscapes were common throughout the ancient world, dynamically conjoining mythic pasts, seasonal cycles, and proximate experience.3 Pilgrimage, among the most ancient of human ritual dramas, is predicated on the recreation of prior sacred journeys (including the celestial tracks of the moon and planets) and is often modeled on mytho-historical acts of mobility. The great cycles of Medieval passion and mystery plays sought to reenact (or to anticipate) for the faithful the great events of scripture, from Genesis to Doomsday. Devotional crucifixions, reenacting in visceral form Jesus‘ agony on the cross, have been performed for generations in Mexico, New Mexico, and the Philippines.

Although present-day “living history” reenactments have foundations in ancient rituals, “reenactment” in its modern sense is more often understood as a secular phenomenon. The most prominent of all forms of modern reenactment, the staging of US Civil War battles, developed in the late 1950s and the early 1960s, as men dressed in Civil War uniforms joined with the North-South Skirmish Association to stage battles on the occasion of their centennials.4 Scores of Civil War reenactments are performed each year by thousands of reenactors, viewed by tens of thousands of audience members and supported by a considerable industry of artisans. Although most of the early reenactors were white, a number of African American reconstructed regiments, such as the Massachusetts 54th USCT, regularly participate in these events. The reenactment phenomenon has proliferated globally to include battles of the English Civil War, the American Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, World War I and World War II, as well as medieval and Viking combat and Royal Navy expeditions. Battle reenactors have been recruited, in turn, to re-perform events other than military conflict; in 2001, for example, the artist Jeremy Deller staged an elaborate reenactment of a violent clash between police and union activists associated with the 1984-5 strike of British miners.5

Although most reenactments tend to emphasize the heroic, there is a tendency to evoke tragic and horrific events, activities which often echo ancient ritual dramas. Although to my knowledge, Holocaust activists do not stage live costumed reenactments of the horrors of the death camps, solemn tours through the camps resonate with earlier practices of pilgrimage, placing visitors in visceral, intimate contact with sites of extermination and martyrdom. These experiences are mimetically evoked in some Holocaust museums, in which visitors move through or near a train box car of the sort that might have carried Jews to the camps; similarly several museum renditions of the Middle Passage move visitors through recreations of the holds of slave ships.6 Midway through the the National Museum of American History’s celebrated “Field to Factory” exhibition of the African American Great Migration, visitors were forced to chose between passing through doors marked “White” or “Colored.”7

“Living History” stagings at museum and heritage sites struggle over forms of legitimate authenticity when grappling with the “tough stuff” of memories of genocide, oppression, and structural violence. Costumed staff members at Colonial Williamsburg have reenacted slaves since 1979, but the violent treatment of enslaved persons, such as lashings or branding, is not depicted.8 Nonetheless, some visitors were initially left with the impression that modern African Americans were being held in bondage.9 In October 1994 Colonial Williamsburg presented a reenacted slave auction.10 Stirring national controversy, this event has not been repeated.

Less prominent auctions and events from the slave trade and slavery times continue to be reenacted around the country. In Selma, Alabama, community activist Afriye We-Kandodis takes tour groups, usually of students, through darkened sections of the Museum of Slavery and the Civil War. For much of the tour, participants are treated as slaves--yelled at with racial epithets, crammed into a reconstructed slave ship, and subjected to an auction in which families are torn apart. Activists have sometimes reenacted slave auctions and evoked lynchings in the context of political protests or educational projects.11

Representative Boyd finds in the reenactment a narrative of continuity with an emphasis on kinship bonds among men. In the face of the centuries of violence against black manhood, he receives a vision of a lost male child, returned to the living against all odds. Through the ritual process, the struggle for “Justice” gives birth to a male issue that bears its name. His personal vision promises the restoration of an idealized patriarchal African American family, delivering a posterity that had seemed to be violently truncated. Through his dream narrative Fatherhood and proper generational succession are restored. In the complex kinship dynamics in these narratives, conventional distinctions between victim and perpetrator, self and other, love and hate, fear and longing, are continually eroded.

The work of ritual upon these potent “dreamscapes” requires physical elements that can be transacted and manipulated. Two highly charged objects--the automobile in which the victims are transported, and the doll used to represent Dorothy Dorsey’s unborn baby--help to mediate relations between the realms of the living and the non-living.

Ellen Schattschneider, Arrival of car, Moore's Ford, Georgia, 2009.
Ellen Schattschneider, Arrival of car, Moore's Ford, Georgia, 2009.

Each year, the Atlanta-based sponsors of the reenactment, including prominent African American political figures in Georgia, insist that the automobile that carries the victims to their death should be a period-authentic vintage vehicle. Yet most years, the local African American organizers have quietly arranged for a locally-owned and well-loved vehicle, a 1977 Lincoln Town Car. The choice is challenging, since this particular car is mercurial and there’s considerable anxiety each year over whether or not its engine will actually turn over at the crucial moment.

The Town Car belongs to William Mason, who in 2010 directed the rehearsal at the riverside. William has roots in Walton County, but grew up on the “rough streets” of Atlanta. He proudly explains that the year before the first reenactment he spied the 1977 car sitting up on blocks in the front yard of a local white man whom he gradually persuaded to sell it. “That white man never did think I’d ever get it running again. That’s why I got it for practically nothing!. . . It belongs in the reenactment. That’s why it came to me I think.”

At the first reenactment in 2005, William played the role of the white farmer Lloyd Harrison, and drove the Town Car, with the four victims, to the bridge. In subsequent years, various white men have played the farmer, but in nearly all cases William’s car has been used.

Come summer 2009, Representative Boyd insisted there would be a historically realistic car. “People need to see the way this really was. No ghetto cruisers that can barely start. . . . This is going to a vintage car, and I’ll personally pay for renting one from any movie studio.”

Initially, William, a long time member of the Moore’s Ford Memorial Committee, agreed that his car shouldn’t be used. Many of the organization’s white members and some of its black ones were opposed to the reenactments, which they believe fundamentally undercut efforts at cross-racial reconciliation. William had hoped to maintain neutrality and peace in the group by not offering up his car.

Yet, the local Walton County organizers continued to show a deep attachment William’s car and simply were not interested in period-specific verisimilitude. Nick, who has been researching the case since the 1960s and who serves as the leading local organizer, quietly visited William and prevailed on his long-time friend to lend his car. So the Lincoln again occupied pride of place in 2009. One of the organizers explained,

Well, [William], you see. He’s one of us. . . . He has kin all over the county. People know him and they know that car of his. This thing, this lynching, it burned a hole right into the soul of this county. . . People see William’s car, they just know this thing happened to real people, not somebody in the history books. It could happen again to anybody, if we don’t hold together.

Local activists feel that historical verisimilitude is vital in all cinematic renditions of the lynching.12 They were concerned about the historical mistakes in the Moore's Ford episode of Keith Beauchamp’s docudrama series “Murder in Black and White" which incorrectly depicted the victims riding in the back of a pickup truck. As one elderly community member insightfully remarked after a screening:

I understand Keith wanted to show, oh, black people had to ride in the back of the truck, like they were cattle or something. But you know it wasn’t always that way, sometimes, so much of the time, there was something that seemed like kindness back then, you thought, all right, this man is going to take care of me, he’s putting me right inside his car and just talking to me. . . . Of course, you never knew where he was taking you. That was the point about life back then, you never knew. . . . So I think the movie misses that part, somehow, by putting them in the back of the truck.

The organizers of the reenactment strive to avoid any appearance of distance between the 1946 tragedy and the present moment. As Alice, who sometimes plays one of the murdered women, states,

I can’t tell you all the pain I feel inside of me, knowing what happened to those poor souls that day. When I’m lying down there in the mud by the bridge, its like no time has passed. This could happen to anyone, my brother, my son, my grandchildren. This thing, it happened then, but its still happening.

Similarly, Jane, who for the past two years has played the other murdered woman, the pregnant Dorothy Dorsey, explains that she does this to honor the memory of her own son, who was slain on the streets of Atlanta some years ago in a black-on-black drug-related shooting. “All this killing, this lynching, it haunts us still. That’s why we need to be here, to bear witness, to remember. Otherwise the killing just keeps on going on.”

Jane gives public lectures to African American youth on the dangers of black-on-black violence, pleading with young men to get themselves off the streets. She has encased Martin’s bloodstained shirt in glass, along with his photographs, and carries this assemblage around to schools. For Jane and her friends the doll of the fetus is closely associated with her own lost son.13 Significantly, Jane uttered the evocative line--“this reenactment. . . lets us hold on. We’re holding on to those who can’t be held”--as she was cradling the doll in her arms.

Ellen Schattschneider, Doll representing the fetus of Dorothy Dorsey, Moore's Ford, Georgia, 2009.
Ellen Schattschneider, Doll representing the fetus of Dorothy Dorsey, Moore's Ford, Georgia, 2009.

Many African American reenactors explain that they are motivated by an intense curiosity to “figure out” what motivated the perpetrators, to understand how a “man could behave in such a way” and to understand “just what the victims felt like on that day.” William drove his car during the first reenactment, when all the Klansmen were played by local black men wearing white masks. “You know,” he says, “I got that car off a white man. And driving the car that day I really had to think what a white man felt like, driving that car, taking our people to their deaths. Really made me think, you know?”

The Moore’s Ford reenactors grapple each year with ethical challenges. They strive to honor the dead, to reveal unspeakable moments of terror, while at the same time acknowledging that the ultimate experience of terror, as known by victim and perpetrator, are beyond representation. As Nick remarks, “No one can know what they felt that day, only God can know that. But we have to try, we have to try.” At the same time, the participants struggle with the mysteries of death and life, passing through horror each year, and finding a way back into the flow of everyday life.

Significantly, at the conclusion of the 2010 reenactment, after she and the other victims had been “restored to life,” Jane placed the doll on the front seat of the car, facing front, so that photographers could have ready access to it. She did not place it in on the back seat, where the lynching victims had sat, but up front—oriented towards a new future.

Conclusion

“We come back to life now, we come back to life,” said Richard in 2008, after playing George Dorsey. Those who had just been playing at being dead were alive again, re-integrated back into the world of the living.

For all the undeniable anguish and trauma experienced by the performers, they are powerfully re-enlivened by the reenactment. Its deep appeal rests in part on the way it allows for moving back and forth between the perspectives of victim and perpetrator, white and black, actor and acted upon, living and dead. A participant may simultaneously experience the suffering of an African American female victim facing the hour of her death, as well as the adrenaline rush of the violent white Klansmen.

In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes ponders the mystery of a photograph of a condemned man on the eve of his execution: “he is dead, and he is going to die."14 Here perhaps is the enduring, seductive enigma of the Moore’s Ford reenactment, which so viscerally engages both its friends and its foes. In this uncanny spectacle, we come to apprehend, in disturbing intimacy, those who are dead, and just about to die, those who murder and those who suffer, those who come back to life, and those forever consigned to the outer darkness. We are given a chance to move among the unspoken nightmare of our common history, and to be suspended somewhere, for an instant and an eternity, in that shadow zone that hovers between this home on earth and our dreamed-of eternal home--suspended between sleep, wakefulness and our buried lives.

Acknowledgements

I am grateful for the many persons in Walton County and environs who have shared their diverse perspectives on the Moore’s Ford killings and the reenactment. I am especially grateful to the reenactment participants and organizers for their time and generosity. It is my hope that in this essay I honored the trust they have placed in me. Ellen Schattschneider assisted me in my research; the interpretations presented in this essay have emerged, in large measure, out of conversations with her. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the MARIAL Center on February 4, 2010; I acknowledge the thoughtful comments from the audience, especially from Bradd Shore, Lynn Linnemeier and Kevin Sipp and am grateful for insights into ritual and reenactment from Pete Richardson and Rick Parmentier. I also am grateful for careful readings by Allen Tullos, the Southern Spaces editorial staff, and the anonymous readers for Southern Spaces.

  • 1. I attended and observed preparations for the Moore’s Ford reenactments in 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010. I have interviewed many participants in the 2005 and 2006 reenactments.
  • 2. For an account of earlier memorial practices at Moore’s Ford see Mark Auslander, "'Return to Sender:' Confronting Lynching and Our Haunted Landscapes.“ Southern Changes, Vol. 24, No. 1-2, 2002, pp. 4-7.
  • 3. Inge Nielsen, Cultic Theatres and Ritual Drama: A Study in Regional Development and Religious Interchange between East and West in Antiquity (Aarhus, Denmark: Aaruhus University Press, 2002).
  • 4. Rory Tuner, “Bloodless Battles: The Civil War Reenacted,” The Drama Review, Vol. 24, no. 4 (1990).
  • 5. Alice Correia, “Interpreting Jeremy Deller’s The Battle of Orgreave,” Visual Culture in Britain, Vol. 7, no. 2 (2006).
  • 6. Oren Baruch Stier, “Different Trains: Holocaust Artifacts and the Ideologies of Remembrance,” Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Vol. 19, no. 1 (2005).
  • 7. Jo Blatti, “Field to Factory: Afro-American Migration, 1915-1940,” Oral History Review, Vol. 16, no. 1 (1988). The exhibition was curated by Spencer Crew and designed by Jim Sims.
  • 8. Handler and Gable report that white reenactors and staff at Colonial Williambsurg tend to minimize the cruelty of the slavery system. Richard Handler and Eric Gable, The New History in the Old Museum: Creating the Past at Colonial Williamsburg (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002): p.225.
  • 9. James Oliver Horton, “Presenting Slavery: The Perils of Telling America's Racial Story,” The Public Historian, Vol. 21, no. 4 (1999): p. 30.
  • 10. The protests against the auction were organized primarily by the local NAACP and SCLC chapters. In her detailed analysis of this episode Lisa Woolfork argues that much of the local African American opposition to the auction was deeply gendered; senior male African American activists and civil rights leaders, she suggests, were offended that the auction was conceived of and planned by female African American professionals at Colonial Williamsburg. Lisa Woolfork, Embodying American Slavery in Contemporary Culture (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009). See also James Oliver Horton, “Presenting Slavery: The Perils of Telling America's Racial Story,” The Public Historian, Vol. 21, No. 4 (1999).
  • 11. In spring 2010 a Lumpkin County, Georgia high school history teacher was placed on leave after her students, planning on creating an anti-racist film about lynching, walked through the school cafeteria wearing Klan robes. See: http://www.wsbtv.com/news/second-teacher-at-center-of-kkk-controversy/241731973.
  • 12. I wish to emphasize that local community disagreements with the urban-based organizers of the reenactments, over issues such as the age of the vehicle, were nuanced and low key. Nearly all local participants would be extremely reluctant to offer public critique of a figure such as Representative Boyd, whom is widely regarded in the Georgia African American community as a hero of the civil rights struggle.
  • 13. It is interesting to note that in 2008 a friend of Jane’s, one of the organizers of the performance, made the doll out of nylon pantyhose. So in that year the doll and Martin’s shirt shared powerful affinities, both were articles of clothing stained with blood.
  • 14. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, tr. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981).
doi:10.18737/M7DK6D

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