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Fire In A Canebrake Book Review

Phyllis Rhodes

No Justice.....No Peace.....


The term, "Fire in a Canebrake", is a phrase that Walton County, Georgia residents used to describe the sounds of the fatal gunshots that commenced the last mass lynching in America; it is also the title of Laura Wexler's historical account of the Moore's Ford lynching where four blacks were murdered in late July 1946.  The novel painstakingly details the "who, what, when, where and why" of the horrific crime and is supported by interviews, FBI reports, and other detailed documentation.  


Wexler takes us back to the beginning when a black man, Roger Malcolm, stabs a white man, Barnett Hester, for allegedly having an affair with his common law wife, Dorothy.  As Barnett lingers near death, Roger sits in jail counting his days left on earth.  Eleven days later when Barnett recovers, Roger is then set free when his bail is posted by Loy Harrison, a wealthy landowner and landlord to George Dorsey (Dorothy's older brother) and his common law wife, Mae Murray.  It is returning home from the jail that Roger, Dorothy, George, and Mae are dragged from Loy's car by an angry mob of white men and are murdered in cold blood.  Loy claims he did not and could not recognize any of the attackers which was why his life was spared on that fateful day....and so the lying begins and never seems to end.


For years, the NAACP, FBI, Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI), and local law enforcement conduct their investigations, interrogations, and examinations only to arrive at no convictions.   It is only in 1991, when an "eyewitness" steps forward to tell his story that there appears to be a slither of hope for justice.  However, hope fades as holes and contradictions run rampant in his testimony as well; and unfortunately by the early 1990's all of the suspected perpetrators and potential corroborating witnesses are deceased.  It appears that the leads had literally died out and one wonders if justice will ever be served.


The author does an excellent job of "peeling back the layers" to set the stage for the story and expertly blends in the national and state political agendas that influenced the course of events surrounding the lynching.  By doing so, the reader understands the history of the rural Georgian townships where the story plays out, the role of the key witnesses including their family and criminal backgrounds, public displays of bigotry and drunkenness. She also shares the political tactics of the day used to deny blacks of their Civil Rights and protection under Federal law, numerous contradictions in the witness's statements/alibis/affidavits, and lack of follow-up and missed opportunities by law officials.  The handling of the case by the investigators from beginning to end is totally unbelievable by today's standards, but what is moreso shocking is the blatant racism, hatred, and wantonness of the townsfolk toward an atrocity such as this.  


This reader ran a myriad of emotions while reading the novel -- first, frustration in that no perpetrators were ever brought to justice and nor was anyone ever held accountable for these heinous crimes -- a fact that is unfortunately recurrent in so many lynching cases.  Secondly,  anger and sadness when reading about the intimidation and threats against local blacks as well as the breakdown and separation of the victim's families in the aftermath of the lynching.  The murders only exacerbated their wretched existence as poor, undereducated sharecroppers.  The author's skill in conveying their daily living conditions and lifestyle using census statistics and first hand accounts was outstanding and heartbreaking.


This book is a page-turner!  Although Oprah, Dateline, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution have covered this story, Wexler adds a twist:  her words breathe life into the pages and add color to the black and white photos in the book; she presents the evidence in such a way to allow readers to draw their own conclusions.  Hats off to Ms. Wexler for her perseverance and dedication to finding truth.  Well done!


The Nubian Circle Book Club rating for Fire in a Canebrake is 4.5 out of 5 stars. We welcome your comments and thoughts about this book review.  Please e-mail us at: