A Shocking Discovery About Lynchings: Military Veterans Often Were Targets
As they returned home from war, proud of their service, black veterans in the south often encountered suspicion, resentment, and - in some cases - brutal violence.
Part one of a two-part series. Listen to part two here.
In Montgomery, Ala. earlier this year, social justice advocates unveiled a stark memorial to the thousands of black Americans who were lynched. But as they researched that ugly part of the nation's history, they discovered something that surprised them: Among the prime targets for lynchings were military veterans.
"It just became evident when we were doing research on lynching and racial terror that veterans were particularly vulnerable," said Bryan Stevenson, a New York University law professor who leads the Equal Justice Initiative, which built the Alabama memorial. "They were prime targets for the kind of violence that terrorized African-Americans between Reconstruction and World War II."
Black veterans of that era felt empowered by their service, Stevenson said, but many were from the South, and they came home to white Southerners who feared that empowerment.
"The military has always enjoyed a kind of deference and respect and honor," he said. "And it was hard to navigate that for white Southerners when they were dealing with black veterans coming back home."
And many white southerners were willing to use violence to suppress it.
Like the 1946 killing of J.C. Farmer of Nash County, N.C., who was shot by a mob after a law officer apparently attacked him for laughing at a bus stop.
Some white southerners even considered it a provocation if a black man wore his military uniform in public, Stevenson said.
"Many of them would be asked to take off their uniforms and walk home in their underwear, naked, in some optic of humiliation," he said. "And they would resist and there would be conflict, there would be violence.
"Victory at war, victory at home"
World War II in particular was a turning point for African Americans, in part because so many served. At the beginning of the war, there were fewer than 4,000 black troops. By the end, there were more than 1.2 million.
Many had enlisted in hopes of better lives, gaining more respect. Instead, they were viewed with suspicion and resentment upon their return.
During World War II, black leaders in the U.S. began promoting what they called the "Double V" campaign. One V represented victory over fascism in the war, while the second called for victory over racism at home.
"Victory at home meant getting the right to vote you go fight for your nation and come back home and you're not allowed to vote because of your color," Stevenson said.
But the right to vote wasn't one that many white Southerners wanted to yield, and that may have played a role in one of the more notorious lynchings of the post-World War II era -- one that amateur actors and activists now reenact annually in Georgia.
A veteran named George Dorsey was killed, along with his wife and another couple, near a bridge at a rural area called Moore's Ford. Their killings came in 1946, during the heated atmosphere of the first election after the U.S. Supreme Court blocked white-only primaries.
A leading candidate was campaigning on a pledge to prevent black voters from casting ballots in primaries.
The two couples were dragged from a car near a rural bridge and shot dozens of times.
The fact that Dorsey had served during the war likely contributed to the reasons he was killed -- and amplified the injustice, said Cassandra Greene, a minister who directed the reenactment.
"You go in another land, and you literally were risking your life for this country, and then you come back and you end up dead in a field, for what?" Greene said. "He was a vet, he served this nation, but it doesn't matter what we do, we are always second-class to a certain element of our country."
A decisive moment for the civil rights movement
The Moore's Ford killings, as they are now called, were so horrific that they all but overshadowed another lynching of a veteran just days earlier and a few counties away.
The Ku Klux Klan had threatened violence against African Americans who dared to vote, but Maceo Snipes ignored the threats and became the first black voter in Taylor County, Ga.
A day later, four white men drove up to his house, called him out on the porch, and shot him after a brief altercation. Snipes lingered in the hospital for two days, but the doctor claimed not to have any "black blood" for transfusions.
When he died, many of his family members fled to Ohio. He was buried in an unmarked grave after the black undertaker received death threats.
For years, Snipes' great niece, Raynita Alexander, has collected records and stories from family members to illuminate his life and death.
She said stubbornness was a family trait, and that from all she has learned, she has no doubt that his service fighting in the Pacific in World War II affected his decision to vote.
"I think it made him say he had a right," she said. "I really think that's what went through his mind. 'Why would you keep me from voting if I served my country?'"
The two lynchings of veterans directly affected the civil rights movement. For one thing, they inspired a young college student named Martin Luther King, Jr. to write a letter to the editor of the Atlanta Constitution.
"We want and are entitled to the basic rights and opportunities of American citizens: The right to earn a living at work for which we are fitted by training and ability, equal opportunities in education, health, recreation and similar public services, the first to vote, equality before the law; some of the same courtesy and good manners the we ourselves bring to all human relations," he wrote.
Martin Luther King, Sr., later said this reaction to the killings was "the first intimation" of his son's greatness.
Stevenson said those lynchings helped crystallize King's thinking.
"What they did was allow him to talk about the problem of racial violence, our history of racial inequality, in a new way," he said.
Others besides King took notice, too, in part because lynchings had become rare as the federal government brought increasing pressure to investigate and stop them.
"It just was such a setback, it was an injury to the black community and the consciousness of the black community," Stevenson said. "And I think what happened in Moore's Ford was a real reminder to people: you're not safe, you'll never be free, and horrific things can happen in a moment's notice."
"That kind of insecurity really pushed civil rights leaders to realize they couldn't wait any longer," he said. "We've got to do something."
Still, it took decades after those lynchings for civil rights activists to make major progress protecting minorities' voting rights. Today, 35 percent 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 have never been any arrests in the Snipes and Moore's Ford lynchings, even after renewed investigations decades later.
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.