FORT VALLEY, Ga. -- The trial of a popular black doctor accused of murdering a white woman has further polarized a small town already struggling with racial issues, some black community leaders say.
Several of the black residents of Fort Valley, who compose about 65 percent of the rural town's population of 9,000, feel Dr. Vincent Mallory's murder trial is as much a racial issue as it is a legal one.
The trial has been a major topic of conversation in rural Peach County since February when the charred body of Shelby Fields, one of Mallory's white patients, was found in the rubble of a burned house. She was shot before the house was set afire, police said.
Mallory, 31, who some say also had a personal relationship with the 49-year-old woman, was charged with the slaying and with setting the house on fire to conceal the crime.
Some of Mallory's friends and supporters say the murder charges are a part of a racially motivated conspiracy against the young doctor, whose local popularity has caused him to draw away patients from some of the area's older, established physicians.
Robert Church, a black former city councilman, said Mallory's popularity was enhanced by his long hours of volunteer work, such as holding open clinics. 'He was very popular and he was taking the business of the old doctors,' Church said.
The perception that Mallory may have been unfairly accused has caused some black residents to organize a fund-raising drive for Mallory's defense, and it has caused others to suspend efforts to deal with the community's racial problems.
'I think this kind of thing helps polarize the city,' said Clayborn Edwards, a funeral home owner and active member of the black community.
'There are some people who think Dr. Mallory has been successful as a physician, and it's quite obvious that several of his patients were patients of white physicians,' Edwards said.
Mallory, a Philadelphia native, was recruited to the Peach County Hospital staff seven years ago. He reportedly has treated some 4,000 people who live near the middle-Georgia town built around the Bluebird Body Co., which makes school buses, and the all-black Fort Valley State College.
Mallory has been held without bond in Houston County since his arrest April 6. The trial is being held in Houston County because the slaying and arson occurred in one of its towns, Bonaire.
During a pretrial hearing, prosecutors tried to link Mallory to the murder of another female patient, further fueling the conspiracy charges in the black community.
The major fund-raising effort for Mallory has been led by the Ministerial Alliance, a coalition of area churches. The group has raised more than $10,000 for the defense, according to one of its leaders, the Rev. Morris Hillsman.
Hillsman emphasized the money is being raised because of concern over fairness in the case -- not necessarily because the alliance's members think Mallory is innocent.
'We're not dealing with innocent or guilty,' Hillsman said. 'Our concern is that we have an adequate defense.'
This is not Mallory's first trial, nor is it the first time charges leveled against him have brought cries of conspiracy.
In 1982, Mallory faced five counts of illegally distributing a highly addictive pain-killer called Dilaudid. That Peach County case ended in a mistrial, and several blacks contendedd Mallory would not have been tried if he had been white.
Some blacks say their doubts about Mallory's prosecution are natural in a town that maintains segregated neighborhoods and separate high school proms for black and white students, and where blacks are under-represented in local government.
One of Fort Valley's major features is the railroad track that cuts a broad swath through the middle of town. A gas station attendant, when asked if there was a black section of town, said, 'Drive across the railroad track and see for yourself.'
Black leaders cite the segregated proms as an example of the town's racial problems. But Peach County school superintendent Bob McClendon is quick to point out that the school system has 'been out of the prom business for a long time,' making the proms more of a community event.
But because of the Mallory trial, at least one community group has temporarily stopped trying to bring blacks and whites together -- for a senior prom as well as other events.
'As president, I just have not called the last four meetings,' said Henry E. Bryant, 77, the black leader of the Community Union Club and former assistant superintendent of the Fort Valley school system. 'I think they'd just like to get (the trial) behind them,' Bryant said, speaking of other members of the group.
Despite its black majority and the civic activities of residents such as Mallory, Fort Valley only has one black elected city official, a councilman.
From 1978 to 1982, three of the city's six councilmen and the mayor were black. But during the next term, the political structure changed as several of the black members were ousted, including Church.
Mayor C.W. 'Pete' Peterson doesn't see the city's political structure as a racial matter.
'I don't think there's any racial issue behind this thing,' he said. 'They weren't producing, I guess, for the blacks,' he said of the ousted government officials.