In May, 1964, two black teenagers and civil rights activists, Charles Moore and Henry Dee, were kidnapped outside Meadville, Mississippi by a gang of thugs, members of a Klu Klux Klan klavern, who beat the two young men senseless in a National forest, then drove across state lines through parts of Louisiana, before dumping them, still alive, into the Mississippi river, weights attached to their bodies to insure that they would drown. Their case formed the basis for the 1988 film, Mississippi Burning, which won an Oscar for Best Cinematography, but brought no justice for the families of the slain men.
You see, the case had never been brought to trial by either state or federal authorities. Prosecutors had always claimed there was insufficient evidence to seek indictments. These were real life “cold cases” that no one in Mississippi had been willing to do anything to solve.
It wasn’t until January, 2000, that Ronnie Harper, a local district attorney, reportedly asked for federal help in investigating the murders. Even then it took a concerted campaign by Thomas Moore, Charles Moore’s brother, to get the Department of Justice to re-open the investigation. Moore was assisted in his efforts by the concurrent production of, and publicity generated by, a Canadian documentary about the case, Mississippi Cold Case (produced with the assistance of the Jackson Free Press). Without those efforts, it’s not clear that any indictments would have been brought, despite the fact that several of the suspected Klansmen were still alive. James Seale, the man convicted yesterday for the murders, had even admitted his involvement to the FBI in 1964:
Before the trial started, a former FBI agent gave evidence that he had confronted Seale and accused him of the murder a few months after the deaths. Edward Putz said Seale had replied: “Yes, but I’m not going to admit it. You are going to have to prove it.”
Finally, on January 24, 2007, an indictment against a former Mississippi lawman, James Seale, long suspected of being among those who kidnapped and murdered Dee and More, was filed in the Federal District Court located in Jackson, Mississippi. Seale’s trial has just concluded with a jury verdict finding him guilty on all counts of the indictment:
A 71-year-old man alleged to have been a member of the Ku Klux Klan has been found guilty of kidnapping and conspiracy in the 1964 deaths of two black teenagers that sparked a summer of violence later depicted in the film Mississippi Burning. […]
[James] Seale’s conviction was achieved on the words of a confessed Klansman, Charles Edwards, who was granted immunity from prosecution in exchange for turning on his old friend.
He testified that Seale had belonged to the same Klan chapter, or klavern, as he had, which was led by Seale’s late father. The prosecution team admitted to the jury they had made “a deal with the devil” but argued that it was the only way to get justice 43 years after the killings.
Seale, who declined to testify, now faces up to two life sentences. He is unlikely to leave prison alive.
Why did it take so long to bring this James Seale, or any of the other killers, for that matter, to justice? Testimony provided by another Klansman at the trial revealed how deeply implicated in the crime local law enforcement officials had been. The FBI knew this fact, yet after conducting their investigation, rather than pursuing a federal indictment (the crime had occurred on federal land, and state lines had been crossed by the killers), they turned their files over to local officials, as was the “practice at the time.”
The trial testimony of the ex-Klansman strongly suggests that county law enforcement officials knew that Dee and Moore had been kidnapped on the day of the murders. One of the two men picked up, Dee, was suspected by the Klan of involvement in black self-defense activities. According to the witness, the KKK was following up on a rumor that guns were being brought into the county by black activists “to start an insurrection;” Dee fell under suspicion because, Edwards testified, he wore a black bandana, and he had recently returned from a visit with relatives in Chicago. After beating a false confession out of the youths, some of the conspirators left them under guard and went to the county courthouse to get the sheriff, whom Edwards testified was also in the Klan. This group then proceeded to search a black church where the youths said the guns were. Finding nothing at the church, the Klansmen went back and got the two victims, took them to the river and dumped them in.
The federal government could well have pursued charges in these deaths in 1964, particularly so as the beatings took place on federal lands. Instead, as was its practice at the time, the FBI turned the results of its investigation, including the physical evidence, over to the state for further action. FBI witnesses in the current trial have testified they do not know what happened to the physical evidence when it moved from federal to state hands. But did the Bureau really expect that the sheriff and his men – who could hardly have been in the dark about the abduction since they led a search of the church at the behest of the Klan conspirators while the crime was in progress – to pursue the case in earnest?
Today, we often view the Civil Right’s era through rose colored lenses. We remember Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, the “I have a dream …” speech and the victory of non-viollent civil disobedience which led to the landmark civil rights laws of 1964 and 1965. We sometimes forget, that this was an era of grotesque violence and terror employed by white supremacists against civil rights activists and the African-American community at large, who did not go down quietly in their fight against equality for all. Those who crossed their path payed a terrible price.
Our official narratives of the time sometimes soften the horror of that violent reaction by some whites in the South, and ignore the fact that our federal government often enabled that violence by its own failures and cowardice. Or perhaps those failures arose because of the obsessive nature of J. Edgar Hoover, who would have preferred to prove that the “Civil Rights Movement” was at its heart, a communist plot. Hoover, the closest our nation has come to a figure like Heinrich Himmler, was not a friend of African-Americans, nor was he willing to see the Civil Rights Movement outside the frame of his own anti-communist paranoia.
In any event, yesterday was a great day. A murderer has finally been brought to justice, and the families of the murdered men have some solace in that fact. The shame for all of us is that it took 43 years — Forty-three Years — to achieve even that small victory against racist thugs like James Seale. We’ve come a long way in time, but covered so little ground.