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Documenting The History Of Mob Violence Against African-American Veterans

Sep 20, 2018
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In Montgomery, Ala., earlier this year, social justice advocates unveiled a memorial to thousands of African-Americans murdered by lynch mobs. And the activists discovered something that many people didn't know. The prime targets for lynchings have included military veterans, men who served their country and then came home. Here's Jay Price of member station WUNC.

JAY PRICE, BYLINE: Sometimes it took almost nothing to trigger the violence against black veterans - disagreeing with a gas station attendant or a bus driver - or simply laughing, like 19-year-old Army veteran J.C. Farmer did while clowning around with a friend at a bus stop in Sims, N.C., in 1946. A police officer took offense. They argued. And within hours, a mob shot Farmer dead.

BRYAN STEVENSON: The military has always enjoyed a kind of deference and respect and honor. And it was hard to navigate that for white Southerners when they were dealing with black veterans coming back home.

PRICE: New York University law professor Bryan Stevenson leads the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative, which built the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, also known as the lynching memorial. He says black veterans often felt empowered by their military service, especially after World War II when more than a million African-Americans were in uniform.

STEVENSON: Except their wearing the uniform - that was a provocation. And many of them would be asked to take off their uniforms and walk home in their underwear or naked in some optic of humiliation. And they would resist. And there would be conflict, and there'd be violence.

PRICE: Stevenson's organization has documented the lynchings, defined as extrajudicial killings by mobs, of more than 4,400 African-Americans between 1877 and 1950. The number of veterans is unknown. But Stevenson says thousands were assaulted and many were lynched.

(SOUNDBITE OF HISTORICAL RE-ENACTMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Eugene Talmadge) Alien influences and communistic influences from the East are agitating social equality in our state.

PRICE: Among them was a veteran named George Dorsey, who was killed with his wife and another couple in Walton County, Ga., in 1946.

(SOUNDBITE OF HISTORICAL RE-ENACTMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Eugene Talmadge) They desire to destroy the heritage and traditions fought for by our grandparents.

PRICE: That's an actor recreating a speech by the race-baiting Georgia gubernatorial candidate Eugene Talmadge. He delivered speeches like this after federal courts ended whites-only primary elections and just before the Dorsey murders. Every year, activists in Georgia stage the speech. Then, the actors and audience drive into the countryside to Moore's Ford Bridge, where Dorsey and the three others were lynched 72 years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF HISTORICAL RE-ENACTMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Get him out of the car.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, screaming) No, no.

PRICE: There, they perform a re-enactment of the violence that's hard to watch and hard to listen to.

(SOUNDBITE OF HISTORICAL RE-ENACTMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Take them to that field down there, boys. We got us a job to do.

PRICE: Those killings were so horrific that they overshadowed another lynching of a veteran just days earlier and a few counties away.

RAYNITA ALEXANDER: Maceo was the first African-American to vote in Taylor County.

PRICE: For years, Raynita Alexander has collected stories from family members about the death of her great-uncle Maceo Snipes. She found this account in a Pittsburgh newspaper.

ALEXANDER: (Reading) Afterward, Maceo told a friend that the white folks on the election board appeared sort of dazed as he cast his vote.

PRICE: The Ku Klux Klan had threatened violence against any African-Americans who dared to vote.

ALEXANDER: (Reading) Private Snipes didn't know it, but the white folks were right. He was already dead when he dropped the ballot in the box.

PRICE: The next day, four white men with Klan connections drove up to Snipes' house, called him out on the porch and, after a brief altercation, shot him. Snipes lingered in the hospital for two days, but his doctor claimed not to have any, quote, unquote, "black blood" for transfusions. Alexander says stubbornness is a family trait.

ALEXANDER: I served my country - I really think that's what went through his mind. Why would you keep me from voting if I've served my country?

PRICE: Those two lynchings of veterans inspired a young college student named Martin Luther King Jr. to write a letter to the editor of The Atlanta Constitution, arguing that black Americans were entitled to the right to vote, earn a living and be treated equally. Martin Luther King Sr. later said that reaction to the killings was the first intimation of his son's greatness. Stevenson says a young Martin Luther King Jr. and others took notice of the killings.

STEVENSON: When these veterans are lynched, murdered - and particularly in Moore's Ford - it just was such a setback. And I think that kind of insecurity really pushed civil rights leaders to realize that they couldn't wait any longer. This has to happen. We've got to do something.

PRICE: Today, more than a third of Taylor County voters are black, though Snipes' great niece, who volunteers on registration drives, says resentment of that black vote still lingers. Meanwhile, there haven't been any arrests in the Snipes and Moore's Ford lynchings.

For NPR News, I'm Jay Price in Moore's Ford, Ga.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAYLOR MCFERRIN'S "POSTPARTUM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.