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Fire in a Canebrake

The Last Mass Lynching in America
By Laura Wexler

Reading Group Guide

    Fire in a Canebrake
    Laura Wexler

    Questions and Topics For Discussion

    1. There have been many unsolved lynchings in American history. In what ways was the Moore’s Ford lynching similar to other lynchings? In what ways was it different or unique? Why did it generate so much national attention?

    2. The Moore’s Ford lynching seems to have stemmed, at the outset, from an argument between Barnette Hester and Roger Malcolm. What other circumstances—political, social, historical, economic—contributed to the lynching and the community’s reaction to it?

    3. Wexler has described the summer of 1946 as a time of great possibility, great transition, and great unease in the American South, and particularly in Georgia. What do you think she means by this? How did the events of 1946 shift American attitudes about race and civil rights?

    4. The author describes many instances in which “good people” refused to come forth with information about the lynching. What evidence does the author give for their reluctance? What were the differences and similarities in the motivations of blacks and whites for withholding information?

    5. Wexler unearths many theories and testimonies about what happened on the day of the lynching. Did any of the accounts ring more true than the others? Do you agree that Loy Harrison was in on the plan?

    6. Given the horrific nature of the crime and the fact that race is always a contentious and emotional issue, did the author retain objectivity in her storytelling? Should she have? Did your opinion about the community and people involved change over the course of the book? Were you able to identify some people as heroes and others as villains?

    7. After the lynching, according to the author’s account, souvenir collectors swept the site clean. More recently, a popular exhibit of lynching photographs toured the country. Why do you think this atrocity still holds so much fascination? What different motives might drive this apparent desire to possess (or view) physical and photographic documentation of such a traumatic, violent event?

    8. The FBI conducted an extensive investigation into the lynching but was still unable to convict anyone. What were some of the obstacles they came up against? Do you feel they missed any opportunities?

    9. Throughout the book, Wexler untangles the complicated and sometimes surprising relationships between blacks and whites during the postwar era. What are some examples of this? For instance, were you surprised by Barnette Hester’s desire that no retribution be taken on Roger Malcolm?

    10. Were you surprised by how progressive (the NAACP, President Truman’s reaction, etc.) or regressive Americans seemed to be in the wake of World War II? Do you have any personal memories—or shared family memories—of life during that time? How does Wexler’s portrayal jibe with those memories?

    11. Does the history of lynching still hold sway over the American psyche? How? Can you think of any recent events that seem to conjure that history? Do you think that the South has been able to reconcile this legacy?

    12. The Moore’s Ford Memorial Committee formed with the intention of healing the community a half century after the lynchings. Do you feel it was important to commemorate the lynching in the way they have? If not, what do you feel might be better? Do you believe that there can be healing in the absence of justice?

    13. Was the resolution of this historical mystery satisfying? What are your thoughts on the author’s assertion that finding closure in an event like this is impossible?

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