Fire in a Canebrake is a rather odd title for Laura Wexler's narrative reconstruction of a mass lynching of African Americans, at Moore's Ford Bridge, Georgia, in 1946. The title comes from a witness to the events who described the sounds of guns firing as like the crack cane makes when it is burning. The book is first a fascinating account of brutal events, and then follows the trail of the pursuit of justice in their wake.
While there are almost too many books written about the central Civil Rights era to read, Fire In A Canebrake takes the reader back to 1946 - and paints a fascinating picture of race-relations at the end of the Second World War. At this point in history African Americans in the Deep South were not yet openly resisting Jim Crow, and the rigid race/caste system was enforced by the ever-present threats of economic sanction or outright violence. Yet African American veterans, returning from conflict in the Far Eastern or European Theatres, who had fought alongside whites, and spent time in the North; were returning to their share-cropping farms with a new attitude, and restlessness which would eventually become the Civil Rights Movement. When the lynchings at Moore's Ford occurred, the backdrop was an election in which race was a major factor, and the first attempts register black voters in Georgia were being made.
Laura Wexler traces the way in which an altercation between a black share-cropper and a white landlord (with the inevitably strong element of sexual psychology and politics which white supremacists seem peculiarly driven by) led to the mass lynching of two Black couples; George W. and Mae Murray Dorsey, and Roger and Dorothy Malcom. Roger Malcom was bailed from prison by a landlord, and while driving from the prison house to the farm, the mass lynching took place.
Once the story of the ghastly lynching is told; Wexler tells the story of the pursuit of justice. While in several cases, even after many decades, racist killers like Byron de la Beckwith, were convicted. However, despite a State and Federal investigation into what Wexler calls "the last mass lynching in America", no convictions were every made in these murder cases. Wexler's story is that the white population were too loyal to one another to break rank, and were more hostile towards the 'feds' than their local murderers; while the Black folks of Walton and Oconee Counties, were too afraid to speak out about what they knew, for fear of reprisals.
In Wexler's estimation, the national response to these murders is perhaps an indicator of the state of Civil Rights in Georgia in 1946. On one hand, nothing much has changed. Whites were able to murder Black folks with impunity, without consequence, and the law was utterly unable to convict them. Young Emmett Till's murderers were identified in a Mississippi Court after his lynching nine years later; but acquitted by the obligatory white-only jury. Justice in the Georgia of 1946 appears to have been even more corrupt and ineffectual. Yet, things were changing. The national press picked up the this story of a racial crime in rural, remote Northern Georgia and covered the story at length. There was a rising tide of palpable outrage at the shoddy legal outcome: "case-unsolved". In 1946, the pressures that would later explode the old South, were building - but had not yet reached a critical point. Black Lives Matter and in 1946, the nation was only just beginning to grasp that.
While some civil rights murder cases were finally solved many decades after the events; the truth about who brutally killed George W. and Mae Murray Dorsey, and Roger and Dorothy Malcom, has died with their generation. Some fantasists tried to claim they could solve the crime, and came forward as unknown witnesses; but their stories were inconsistent and unreliable.
Ultimately, Fire In a Canebrake, is a grim and tragic story of an unsolved racial quadruple murder. However, what is most fascinating are the repeated insights into the development of race relations in rural Georgia; an under-reported, yet deeply significant period in the unfolding racial drama of The South.