“A big man, who was dressed mighty proud in a double-breasted brown suit, was giving the orders.” J. Loy Harrison, white, was testifying as to what happened leading up to the lynching of the four African-Americans. On July 25, 1946, they were riding to their homes in his car after bail had been posted to free one of the four from jail. At Morris Ford, they were stopped by a car filled with white roughnecks. My blood curdled as I continued to read the rest.
“The big man pointed to Roger Malcolm (the one who had been in jail) and said, ‘We want that n—–.’ Then he pointed to George Dorsey (the other man, a five-year veteran of World War II). ‘That is also my, n—– we want you too, Charlie.’ Harrison butted in. ‘His name ain’t Charlie, he’s George.’ Someone said, ‘Keep your damned big [mouth] shut. This ain’t your party.’”
The four African-Americans, two husbands and their wives, who had recognized the men who stopped the car, were dragged out, taken down below the Morris Ford bridge in Walton County, Ga., and lynched. It was a very hot day and the site was 50 miles west of Atlanta. The news spread fast; the Walton County police notified, came to the scene and the bodies were found. Only the driver, Harrison, was still there; the rest had fled. What I reported was the testimony of Harrison I read in the police report July 25, 1946, which occurred two months before Rosh Hashanah.
The description of the lynching spread quickly through the United States. When the FBI reported the incident to the U.S. president, Harry Truman established the “Human Rights Commission.” Nothing like it had ever existed in America previously. In spite of the action of the president and the investigations of the FBI and the county police, the killers were never found.
A few days later in the end of July, I was sent, for a month, to Camp Daniel Morgan, the Jewish Educational Alliance camp. I have never been able to understand why. My parents had driven back with me from Norfolk, Va., where we were staying when my father was overseas from January 1945 until March 1946. It was really nice, as you can imagine, to be with my father again. As pictures show on his return, I had grown into a “cowboy in full dress, hat and all,” with my cap guns firing.
Only now I can offer a suggestion why I was carted away so quickly from my parents’ care. Once I read about the Morris Ford lynching only this summer, I began to put two and two together again. The atmosphere for the 20,000 Jews in Atlanta was chilling. The anti-Semitism resulting from this incident was fanned by the KKK. We might have been white, but we were targets. My parents wanted to get me out of town quickly. The local branch of the ADL published resolutions, condemning the act and calling for the proper recognition of minority groups. I cannot say I saw fear in my parents or grandparents’ faces. They kept it inside. When I returned in late August, there was a calm in Atlanta.
In September 1946, I started Hebrew school at Shearith Israel. Rav Tuvia Geffen (z’l), my grandfather, had been the rabbi of the synagogue for 36 years. Rabbi Hyman Friedman (z’l), the assistant rabbi, was running the school. His talents as an educator inspired me and the other students. He reverberates in those of us who are alive until this day. Along with Hebrew, our main studies in the three weeks in September were the high holidays.
On Sept. 23, I attended Selichot at our synagogue on Washington Street. I pressured my father to let me go with him, even though Selichot began at midnight. My grandfather, his assistant and the cantor were dressed in white gowns. The cantor was on trial. I read in the Atlanta Jewish paper in 1946 that he made it. Of course, at 7, I fell asleep.
Rosh Hashanah was now at hand. We went to shul where the plaintive melodies of Yamim Noraim were chanted and sung by the congregants.
Arriving at home, around my grandparents’ table were my mother and father. There too, was my uncle Dr. Abraham Geffen, who returned the year before from Iceland, where he served in the U.S. Army for two years. I think there were a few other guests. I heard the kiddush for Rosh Hashanah from my grandfather for the first time. I ate from the tasty round challah dipped in honey. Then we made a special blessing over the apple and dipped it in honey. (Here in Israel, for 40 years, I have eaten many more symbolic foods.)
The next morning, I went to shul with my father. By the time we arrived, my grandfather was already there, sitting next to the ark in white on the bimah. I knew Hebrew, but the machzor was forbidding, so I ran out as often as I could. After 10 minutes outside with my friends, my father came and dragged me back. The baal koreh [Torah reader] was our cousin, who really was good. The aliyot had been bid for – in an exciting fashion. The shul, my father told me, received the money.
Torah and Haftorah completed, we all arose. My father pointed in the machzor, the tefillot to be recited. Almost secretly, our cousin, Abe Edelstein, climbed on to the bimah in the middle of the shul. He put the shofar in his mouth. Hearing those sounds, I was so struck by them, I was excited beyond measure.
Now, after reading the lynching report of the Morris Ford tragedy, I can only imagine what a relief it must have been for the members of the synagogue. The sounds of the shofar said, “We are here – standing very proud as Americans and Georgians – O God – President Truman has done it – please destroy the anti-Semitism which has been our plight for over 2,000 years.”
I had been inducted into Judaism, I felt. What a powerful initiation!
Rabbi David Geffen is a former Atlantan who lives in Jerusalem.