In this blog post, Mark Auslander revisits the reenactment of the 1946 Moore's Ford lynching. In 2015, the reenactment coincided with a pro-Confederate flag rally, and the two events overlapped in several places. Auslander probes the racially-charged politics of roads, motor vehicles, and flags in the wake of the June 17, 2015 massacre at Charleston's Emmanuel AME Church.
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“Robert Franklin Williams, Negroes with Guns (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1962): xiv. In July 1965, gunfire from the Deacons for Defense and Justice dispersed a Klan motorcade firing shots at African American homes in Bogalusa, Louisiana.”
July 25, 2015 saw two competing events on the roads of northeast Georgia. Civil rights activists marked the sixty-ninth anniversary of the Moore's Ford lynching, the killing of four young African Americans near Monroe, Georgia on July 25, 1946. As they have every year since 2005, a multiracial group of performers staged a reenactment of the massacre and the events that preceded it, through a motorcade stopping at sites of memory. Simultaneously, about 350 pickup trucks, cars, and motorcycles, most of them sporting the Confederate battle flag, participated in a "Confederate Flag Rally," along the highways of Walton, Newton, and Rockdale counties. Both events started at 10:00 am, and began and ended at sites in Monroe about a mile away from each other. What might these parallel events tell us about the racially-charged politics of roads, motor vehicles, and flags in the era of #BlackLivesMatter, especially in the aftermath of the June 17 massacre in Charleston's Emmanuel AME Church?
Historical Background: Race and Roadways
Long racially contested spaces, southern roadways in the antebellum era were traversed by those escaping slavery and by slave patrols. From 1865-71 white night riders, associated with the first Ku Klux Klan, rode on horseback intimidating African Americans, disrupting local Republican Party and Loyal League activities, preventing voting, and sometimes leaving the bodies of murdered African Americans along the sides of roads. In turn, anti-Klan activity during Reconstruction often protected streets and neighborhoods. Armed African American groups in Bennettsville, South Carolina, for example, organized protective street patrols.[fn]Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877 (New York: Harper and Row, 1988).[/fn] In the decades following Reconstruction, white terrorists left lynching victims hanging by roads and railroad tracks. The emergence in the 1920s of the second Klan, structured as a national fraternal organization, coincided with the growing consumer availability of automobiles; mass public Klan processions featured Klansmen in cars, as well as on foot and horseback. A 1924 Klan motorcade in Denver even saw the state's Grand Wizard escorted by the city's police officers.[fn]Shawn Lay, The Invisible Empire in the West: Toward a New Historical Appraisal of the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s, ed. Shawn Lay (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992): 56.[/fn]
Car ownership represented enormous pride and expanded opportunity for many African Americans, but roads remained associated with white racist danger from law enforcement and vigilante groups.[fn]Mark Auslander, "Driving Back into the Light: Traversing Life and Death in a Lynching Reenactment by African Americans," in Vehicles: Cars, Canoes and other Metaphors of Moral Imagination, eds. David Lipset and Richard Handler (New York: Berghahn Books, 2014): 178–193.[/fn] The Moore's Ford 1946 massacre involved an ambush by some fifteen armed white men of two African American couples being transported by a white farmer in his automobile. The white mob dragged the four victims from the car, beat them, then shot them shot to death on a dirt road near a bridge crossing the Apalachee River. It is widely believed that following the killings, a motorcade of fifty vehicles, organized by civil rights leader Rev. William Holmes Border of Wheat Street Baptist Church, travelled from Atlanta to Monroe to protest the lynchings and demand prosecution of the perpetrators. The case remains officially unsolved.
With the emergence of the third Klan, from about 1950, armed whites frequently drove through African American neighborhoods, at times firing shots. A July 1951 Klan-organized "Mammoth Motorcade," protested African Americans moving into the Carver Village apartment complex in Miami. White threw rocks from cars and shot an African American man.[fn]Teresa Lenox, "The Carver Village Controversy," Tequesta: The Journal of the Historical Museum of South Florida, no. 50 (1990): 39–51.[/fn] A 1957 Klan motorcade in Monroe, North Carolina, attacking the residence of NAACP leader Albert E. Perry, met successful resistance by armed African American defenders, many of them veterans, through "disciplined gunfire."[fn]Robert Franklin Williams, Negroes with Guns (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1962): xiv. In July 1965, gunfire from the Deacons for Defense and Justice dispersed a Klan motorcade firing shots at African American homes in Bogalusa, Louisiana.[fn]Christopher B. Strain, "'We Walked Like Men': The Deacons for Defense and Justice," Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association 38, no. 1 (1997): 43.[/fn]
Roadways remained dangerous spaces throughout the civil rights movement. During the "Bloody Sunday" assaults in Selma, Alabama on March 7, 1965, Alabama state troopers and county possemen beat scores of protesters as they attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus bridge and march towards Montgomery along US Highway 80 ("Jefferson Davis Highway"). As marchers retreated across the bridge onto Broad Street, four carloads of white possemen pursued the protesters and beat them with nightsticks. Eighteen days later, on March 25, a four-man United Klans of America (UKA) motorized unit assassinated white activist Viola Liuzzo in her automobile along the US Highway 80, as she and an African American volunteer drove back to Montgomery to collect more volunteers.[fn]David Cunningham, There's Something Happening Here: The New Left, the Klan, and FBI Counter-Intelligence (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).[/fn] The Klan, Nazi groups, and other white supremacist organizations continued to use motorcades across the ensuing decades. In November 1979, an armed Klan and Nazi motorcade attacked a "Death to the Klan" rally in Greensboro, North Carolina, leading to the shooting deaths of four protest leaders.
The Moore's Ford Lynching Reenactment
Mindful of the historical context, civil rights organizers associated with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Georgia Association of Black Elected Officials (GABEO) insisted on a motorcade as they planned the first Moore's Ford lynching reenactment in 2005. Following a commemorative meeting at First African Baptist Church in downtown Monroe, a caravan of vehicles toured sites in the county associated with the massacre: the farm where twelve days before the lynching the principal victim, Roger Malcom, had allegedly stabbed a white man, the jail where Malcom had been confined and then bailed out, the riverside ambush location, a roadside plaque commemorating the lynching—erected in 1999 and believed to be the first such commemorative plaque in the US—and finally back to "First A.B." for a fellowship supper.[fn]Mark Auslander, "'Holding on to Those Who Can't Be Held'": Reenacting a Lynching at Moore's Ford, Georgia," Southern Spaces, November 8, 2010, https://southernspaces.org/2010/holding-those-who-cant-be-held-reenacting-lynching-moores-ford-georgia.[/fn]
At the time, organizers noted that the motorcade offered protection through potentially hostile territory (including the farm in Hestertown where relatives of the stabbed white farmer still lived). Nick, a local organizer, added, "Well, the Klan just loves their motorcades, hooting and hollering and brandishing their guns and their rebel flags. So we'll have a caravan too, telling everybody we're not afraid anymore. These highways and byways belong to us too. Nobody's going to stop us!" "Seems only right that we drive out there with our own cars," said Simone, another organizer, "and take these roads back, after these many years." Georgia state representative Tyrone Brooks helped arrange for state police and county sheriff escorts.
The next ten annual reenactments largely followed the original motorcade route. Through 2007, performers enacted the knife fight along the side of the road at the Hestertown site, as cars slowly drove by and some passengers got out to look around. Organizers decided this was too dangerous, since white residents might take violent action against what they might view as a provocative "invasion." A skit of the stabbing was moved inside First African Baptist for the audience to experience before the caravan tour. In 2015 the motorcade visited the three local cemeteries, burial sites for the Moore's Ford victims: Zion Hills (Mae Murray), Chestnut Grove (Roger Malcom), and Mount Perry (George and Dorothy Dorsey, brother and sister).
The 2015 reenactment included a new feature: an early morning motorcade with a church van and five cars proceeding from Wheat Street Baptist Church (on Atlanta's Auburn Avenue) to Monroe, reenacting the 1946 motorcade organized by Rev. William Holmes Border. As the vehicles approached Monroe in 2015, they passed a roadside stand selling Confederate battle flags, for those attending the Confederate flag rally later that morning.
"Confederate Flag Rallies" Since the Charleston Shooting
Confederate battle flags (otherwise known as the flag of the Army of Northern Virginia or the St. Andrew's Cross) have been closely associated with automobiles since the flag's mass revival in the late 1940s. [fn]Although opponents of the flag often assume it was used by the Ku Klux Klan from the time of the organization's founding in 1865, there is little evidence that the Klan used the flag until the 1940s (John Coski,The Confederate Battle Flag: America's Most Embattled Emblem [Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005]: 85–96.) To be sure, the founders of the first Klan were Confederate veterans and honored the memory of the Lost Cause, and many second Klan members from 1915 through World War II felt great loyalty to the memory of the Confederacy, but they appear to have shared the prevailing white Southern sentiment that the flag was best reserved for honoring the Confederate dead in cemeteries and in solemn commemorative marches. From the time of General Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox until the mid-1940s, the flag was largely under the control of heritage organizations such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy. From 1945 onwards, the revised Klan made extensive use of the Confederate battle flag, at times in conjunction with cross burnings at Stone Mountain and other sites. Following the war, members of the elite white fraternity Kappa Alpha increasingly displayed the flag at football games and in "Old South" processions. The rise in public flag display coincided with growing white southern resistance to Truman's civil rights proposals. The flag was widely used in the 1948 National States Rights Democratic Party, the "Dixiecrats," although it was never adopted as the party's official emblem. By 1951, Roy V. Harris, editor of the Augusta Courier and former speaker of the Georgia House of Representatives would write that the flag, "is becoming to be [sic] the symbol of the white race and the cause of the white people. The Confederate flag means segregation" (Coski, 137).[/fn] As John Coski notes, the first Southern 500 race in Darlington, South Carolina in 1950 featured a Confederate flag logo, and the flag has been painted on innumerable stock car racing vehicles ever since.[fn]Coski, 126.[/fn] Small rebel flags have flown from car aerials and larger flags from pick-up trucks throughout the nation for decades. In some instances, the flag has become an informal emblem of working-class white identity, often detached from specific, regional referents. It has flown as the backdrop for rock bands. The flag features prominently in Klan, Neo-Nazi and white supremacist activities, and is flown by many whites who claim to disavow racist positions.
The tenor of the national flag debate dramatically shifted since the June 17, 2015 shootings of nine African Americans at AME Emmanuel Church in Charleston. That the alleged killer had extensively associated himself with the battle flag and white supremacist paraphernalia led to a long overdue consensus in the all but all-white Republican party that publicly-sanctioned displays of the flag should stop. South Carolina and Alabama removed the flag from state capitol grounds. Amazon, Walmart, and eBay restricted or ended sales of the flag and items bearing its image.
The weeks since the Charleston shootings have also witnessed defiant private displays of the Confederate flag, from the back of pick up trucks and front yard masts. On July 18, the North Carolina-based Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan held a pro-Confederate flag rally at the South Carolina state capitol in Columbia. Many other "Protect the Flag" rallies popped up, mainly in the South. The Southern Poverty Law Center is tracking these events through an online map.
The July 25, 2015 Confederate Rally
In Facebook postings the organizer of the July 25, 2015 flag rally denies any effort to interfere or coincide with the reenactment, but this does seem hard to believe. This year, the reenactment commemoration was scheduled to begin at 10:00 am in First African Baptist Church with presentations by law students working with Syracuse University's Cold Case Justice Initiative, reporting on their investigations into unsolved civil rights era murders, including the Moore's Ford massacre. The anti-lynching motorcade was scheduled to leave the church at 1:00 pm, heading south along Route 11 towards the cemeteries. The pro-Confederate flag rally was also scheduled to begin at 10:00 am sharp, at Fuzions, a bar and restaurant near the church; its motorcade was scheduled to leave the restaurant at 12:30 pm, proceed just past First African Baptist Church and then down Route 11 (near the cemeteries, as it happened, where the victims of the lynching are interred). They completed a large circle through the region, heading west on Interstate 20 to Conyers, then cutting back along Highway 138 through Chestnut Grove and finally back to Monroe, where they gathered to celebrate at the restaurant. Most vehicles sported confederate flags, at times paired with the US flag or the "Don't Tread on Me" flag. Organizers claim that the pro-flag caravan stretched over eleven miles. State and local police provided escorts and blocked major intersections to ease the motorcade's passage. Of the approximately five hundred participants, it appears that all were white, except for one African American man who terms himself a "black rebel." White supporters cheered the motorcade from front yards and waved rebel flags in support. Nearly all local African American residents stayed indoors as the motorcade roared by.
Organizers said they were raising money for the Barnesville Blues, the Georgia affiliate of the Sons of Confederate Veterans; a few Confederate reenactors dressed in gray uniforms showed up at the rally. An armed militia group which calls itself "The Georgia Security Force III%" (GSFIII%) participated in the motorcade, providing "security," reportedly brandishing automatic weapons at times. The phrase "III%," found in the title of several modern private militias, refers to their belief that during the Revolutionary War only three percent of the population of the former thirteen colonies actively struggled against the British Crown, and that they, the modern militiamen, are the unique heirs to this spirit of armed resistance against tyranny. Their use of the roman numeral "III" also references the two amendments of the US Constitution they believe themselves to be upholding: the First Amendment (I)'s protection of freedom of speech and the Second Amendment (II)'s protection of the right to bear arms.
Rally organizers claimed they were celebrating "Heritage not Hate." Nonetheless, the circuit taken by the motorcade echoed the racialized history of twentieth century Georgia. African American residents recall multiple armed Klan motorcades on the roadway linking the towns of Walton and Social Circle. In June 1911, as is collectively remembered among the local black population, a mob of three hundred whites removed the African American man Tom Allen from the Atlanta-Monroe train at the Social Circle depot and lynched him. The stretch eastwards Covington to Porterdale and Salem saw dramatic Klan rallies and burning crosses through the mid-century period. Pamela, a relative of one of the Moore's Ford lynching victims, remarked afterwards, "You know that they are just doing this to intimidate us black folks, making everyone stay indoors and off the streets. That was the whole point of the lynching back then in '46. The police came by that night of the lynching and ordered all the colored people off the streets. That's just what they are doing now. That, and trying to start a race war."
The 2015 Lynching Reenactment
As they prepared for the 2015 Moore's Ford lynching reenactment, participants stated repeatedly that "everything has changed, but nothing has changed." The recent string of deaths of African Americans at the hands of white police officers and white racists weighed heavily on everyone's minds. Many spoke of dedicating the reenactment to the memory of the "Charleston 9." When black and white reenactors entered the church sanctuary before embarking on the motorcade, they wore signs proclaiming their identification with the recent victims; "I am Michael Brown." "I am Trayvon Martin." Frequent mention was made of Sandra Bland's arrest and beating by a white police officer in Texas, and her subsequent mysterious death in custody. Participants spoke of driving out to Monroe as a form of "time travel" that emphasized the painful synchronicity of past and present atrocities.
Two days before the reenactment, I heard a striking funeral eulogy by Rev. Hezekiah Benton of Covington's Bethlehem Baptist Church, an institution with close connections to the family of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and with many links to the organizers of the lynching reenactment. Taking as his text John: 21-25—on the predicament of "Doubting Thomas," who had not seen Jesus' return with his own eyes and thus doubted the truth of the resurrection—Rev. Benton spoke of the martyred "Sister Bland." We are, he said, all depending on the dashboard camera, but that is an insufficient form of witnessing. Real witnessing can only occur by human beings, joined in a united group, responsible to one another, just as the united Apostles (constituting the first church) were able to transmit to Thomas, within a locked room, the capacity to witness that which he had not seen. We are all obligated to look out upon the road ourselves, not just relying on the dashboard cam, to witness on behalf of Sister Bland and all our brothers and sisters. As congregants later explained to me, this was an admonition from the pulpit to join in the "witnessing" of the upcoming reenactment, to see with our own eyes the crimes committed upon the roadway.
Two days later, drivers from Atlanta along Highway 138, including those reenacting the Wheat Street Baptist Church motorcade, saw an impromptu roadside stand selling Confederate battle flags. "So glad to see they are making us so welcome," one African American woman wryly remarked. "That's real Southern hospitality," her friend laughed. Two reenactors (one a Jewish man who has played a Klansman in most of the reenactments, and an African American SCLC leader who was playing a beaten witness) decided to park and talk with the white flag seller. They chatted amiably with him about fishing, then, thinking the reenactment might want to make use of a rebel flag, they purchased one. A few hours later, the group decided to incorporate the flag in the reenacted racist speech by Gov. Eugene Talmadge, and then at the killing site itself, draped it on a tree above the prone bodies of the four lynch victims. (I suspect the rebel flag was not actually used in this way in 1946, but it was certainly an effective piece of agit-prop theater in 2015, pointedly linking past and present.)
Circuits of Martyrdom
As many of the attendees photographed the "dead bodies" on the ground with the Confederate flag behind them, it occurred to me that a curious synergy was at play. Both ritual circuits, the lynching reenactment and the pro-flag motorcade, were replete with the symbolism of Christian martyrdom. As I have noted elsewhere, the Moore's Ford reenactment is consistent with imagery of the Medieval mystery play, in which participants travelled across a sacred landscape centered on the mystery of Christ's death on the cross and His resurrection.[fn]Auslander, "Driving Back into the Light," and "'Holding on to Those Who Can't Be Held.'"[/fn] The multi-stop motorcade of the reenactment recalls the classic pilgrim's journey along the Stations of the Cross, culminating in the climatic scene at Calvary. This symbolism emerges out of a long-term analogy between lynching and Christ's crucifixion in African American sermons, arts, and letters; in Gwendolyn Brooks' classic couplet, "The lariat lynch-wish I deplored/The loveliest lynchee was our Lord."[fn]Gwendolyn Brooks, "The Chicago Defender Sends a Man to Little Rock, Fall 1957," in The Bean Eaters (New York: Harper, 1960).[/fn]
The Cross of St. Andrew in the Confederate battle flag similarly recalls the core Christian mystery of bloodshed and redemption; this symbolism intensified during the post-Reconstruction "Redemption" era in the states of the former Confederacy, as the flag was used to mark the graves of the Confederate war dead. In this sense, the deeply opposed circuits—the reenactment and the pro-flag motorcades—drew upon a common Christian iconography that resonates deeply throughout the South.
To be sure, the reenactors felt no kinship with the flag's defenders. During the two hour program inside the church sanctuary prior to the motorcade, the reenactment organizers referred to the adjacent white gathering as a "Klan rally." Former state representative Tyrone Brooks joked that he might just go up to them and "see if they need a speaker." Some attendees posted photographs of the flag-bearing trucks in an adjacent gas station on social media; if nothing else, several people told me with a tight smile, the profusion of rebel flags and the heavily armed militia members added a sense of verisimilitude to the reenactment. For all the jokes, though, there was a distinct sense of anxiety in the air. Even with the presence of Sheriff's deputies inside and outside the church, speakers noted that shots might ring out out at any time. One urged former state representative Brooks and others to write down the details about the lynching investigation: "You could be gunned down by the Klan today and all your knowledge would perish with you."
This year, the reenactment motorcade was led by a hearse belonging to the Young-Leavitt Funeral Home, a prominent African American firm owned by the granddaughter of Dan Young, the mortician and civil rights activist who had overseen the internment of the four victims in 1946, and who, over the years, kept alive the story of the lynching.[fn]Laura Wexler, Fire in a Canebrake: The Last Mass Lynching in America (New York: Scribner, 2003).[/fn] As the roughly sixty-car caravan wound its way, taillights blinking, it appeared to onlookers as a funeral procession. Some residents took their hats off, and many cars passing in the other direction pulled over in a sign of respect. In contrast to previous years, local whites shouted no racial epithets or threats.
At the end of the day, walking near the Moore's Ford bridge, I chatted with Janet, an older African American woman. I mentioned that it seemed a little strange to have been part of mock funeral procession, sixty-nine years after the killings themselves, driving along the roads where so much had happened so long ago. "But don't you see," she said gently, "…it wasn't just a reenactment, now, this time around. It really was a funeral procession, for all of them. For Trayvon, for Eric Garner, for the Emmanuel church-people. For Sandra. We're here today for all of them." Her young friend Alice concurred, "That's why we had to go to the cemeteries this year, to remember them all." Janet was quiet for a moment, then said softly, "I didn't think I could take it, coming here today, especially now. But I'm glad we did it. Didn't let the Klan scare us off. People say nothing's changed, but it has, you know. We're here today, on this here road, together. They can't stop that, hard as they might try."
The pro-flag rally ended back at Fuzions restaurant, where there was a great deal of celebratory revelry, picture taking, and a raffle drawing. The reenactment group had been scheduled to go to a different restaurant, the next street over from Fuzions. But at the end of the day, hardly anyone felt like eating; many stayed at the memorial plaque along the side of Highway 78, talking quietly, sharing memories. Where would the road lead next at this moment of loss and of possibility?