Book 'Em: The Past is Never Dead

NEW YORK (CBS) Mississippi can seem a place set apart from the rest of the country. Its legacy has been defined by racial hatred and violence, rather than by its cultural riches, and this is at least in part due to the long-delayed prosecution of many criminals from the civil rights era. The past fifteen years have seen the resolution of seven such cold cases, and James Ford Seale's makes number eight.

In THE PAST IS NEVER DEAD: The Trial of James Ford Seale and Mississippi's Struggle for Redemption, Harry N. MacLean recounts the gruesome events of May 2, 1964, a day that saw two young black men die at the hands of Seale and his fellow Klansmen. Henry Dee and Charles Moore stood alongside Route 84 in Meadville, Mississippi waiting to hitch a ride back to the neighboring town of Roxie. Instead, they were abducted by six members of the Ku Klux Klan and transported to the isolated Homochitto National Forest. There, they were brutally beaten, interrogated about activities within the black community, and finally tied to engine blocks and drowned in the Mississippi River.

Seale and fellow Klansman Charles Marcus Edwards were arrested for these murders on November 6, 1964. But the case stalled, as the district attorney declared a lack of "sufficient evidence," and the affidavits were dismissed. The reality of the situation had dawned on the D.A. This was Mississippi and there was no way that an all-white jury would ever convict powerful white men for such a crime. Seale and Edwards walked free on January 11, 1965 and it was not until May 2007 that the events of that fateful spring morning caught up with them.

While both men were re-arrested in 2007, only one was brought to trial. Seale was charged with four counts of conspiracy and kidnapping in the deaths of Dee and Moore. The prosecution's case rested almost entirely on the testimony of Edwards, who had been immunized by the prosecution and forced to testify. The defense made Edwards out to be a liar – his story changed every time he told it – but in the end the prosecution's story of Klan violence and the terrible deaths of these two young men was too powerful. The jury convicted Seale on all charges and the judge sentenced him to three life sentences.

More than just an account of two terrible murders, and, ultimately, their prosecution, this is a story about the overarching quest for redemption in the American South.

Interview with Harry N. MacLean by Barry Leibowitz, Senior Writer at 48 Hours | Mystery

What's the significance of the title?

MacLean: The title comes from a famous quote of William Faulkner in his novel "Requiem for a Nun." The whole statement is "The Past Is Never Dead. It's Not Even Past." You hear it quoted frequently in Mississippi, and Obama repeated it in his major speech on race, although not quite correctly.

The title captures a major theme in the book: Will Mississippi ever be able to overcome its terrible past? If it's true that in fact the past is never dead, then how does Mississippi move forward. It's successfully prosecuted eight Klansman for race murders in the sixties. What else must it do.

The James Ford Seale trial was 43 years after the crime. Does that make it feel any less like justice?

MacLean: I think it does, somewhat. Seale had lived most of his adult life a free man, after all. He raised his family, married twice. The prosecutor had a difficult time bringing the murders into the present for the jury: the defendant was old and ill and harmless looking. Most of the witnesses were old. It was a different time, and there is always that "let sleeping dogs lie" attitude.

(AP Photo/Miss. Highway Patrol)
This 1964 Mississippi State Highway Patrol photo shows James Ford Seale.

However, I know that for the families of Henry Dee and Charles Moore, and for many other people who lived through those times, the convictions brought a great deal of satisfaction.

I think it released brother Thomas Moore from his tremendous sense of guilt for not having done more over the years to bring his younger brother's murderers to justice.

Very painful to many people is the fact that the case could have been brought either by the federal or state government many years ago, when Seale was younger and the other killers were still alive.

Still, you take what you can get: nailing one man 43 years late is betting than not nailing anyone at all.

What was it like to have the case depend so heavily on a former Ku Klux Klansman who took part in the crime, but was given immunity?

MacLean: It made the prosecutor's case hang on a very slender thread. Five of the seven men involved in the murder had died over the years. The prosecutor could either have gone after Seale or Charles Marcus Edwards who, like you say, was seriously involved in the crimes himself. Without Edwards testifying as to what Seale told him he did 43 years ago, there was no case. Edwards' credibility was thus the key, and he ended up coming across kind of like a bumbler but an honest bumbler, someone who had gotten caught up in the hysteria of the time but was not himself evil or fundamentally bad. His Christian faith, which he managed to talk about in front of the jury, undoubtedly helped him in this deeply religious area, often referred to as the buckle of the Bible Belt.

You are very blunt in describing the negative image many Americans have of Mississippi. Is it deserved?

MacLean: It is and it isn't. Like almost everything about Mississippi, there is some truth to the image, but in other ways it exists mainly in the minds of outsiders. Mississippi was the worst of the deep South, both in slavery and Jim Crow days. Yet it gave birth to some of America's greatest writers, poets and musicians; i.e, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Eudora Welty, James Ford, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, B.B. King. It is a complicated and little understood place that far transcends its negative image.

How far down the road to redemption is Mississippi for past racial transgressions?

MacLean: I wish there was an easy answer to that question. Mississippi leads the South in prosecuting Klansmen for race murders in the sixties, now claiming 8 of the 24 convictions. The town of Philadelphia, the site of the murders memorialized in the movie "Mississippi Burning," is 75% white, and yet it recently elected a black mayor. Mississippi has more black elected officials than any other state. It is building a civil rights museum, and it is holding conferences and meetings around the state to begin the process of racial reconciliation. And yet…and yet…the populace votes to retain the Confederate Stars and Bars in the state flag, and the fans at Ole Miss football games chant "The South Shall Rise Again" after singing Dixie. It's one step forward and one step sideways.

What the rest of the path to redemption looks like, no one knows. Certainly equality of economic and educational opportunity are part of it. Where the true heart of Mississippi is at this moment is beyond knowing, even to Mississippians themselves.

Do trials like James Ford Seale's help or hurt the effort to really put the past in the past?

MacLean: That depends on whom you talk to. There are those in Mississippi, uneducated and educated, black and white (although mainly white), that think that reliving those old murders reinvigorates the past and makes it that much harder to move into the future. The more dominant view is that the crimes of the past must be confronted, admitted, and detailed before it is possible to begin to move beyond the past. I am of the latter view: until everything is brought out of the shadow and into the sunlight, the past will continue to haunt the present and the future.

How many civil rights murder cases remain from that era, and will they continue to be prosecuted?

MacLean: There are hundreds of civil rights murders from the fifties and sixties in the South that have never been solved or prosecuted. Many of them are beyond hope: either the defendants have died or the witnesses have died. One of the primary suspects in the killing of Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney, the subject of the movie "Mississippi Burning," recently died.

The Justice Department Cold Case Unit had identified over 100 cases that it is looking into, but no one is sure how many of them are prosecutable. The FBI has asked anyone with any information about these crimes to come forward now, before it's too late.

What questions should Crimesider have asked you that we didn't.. and what's the answer?

What's the status of the Seale case now?

MacLean: James Ford Seale's conviction in the kidnapping and murder of the two youths was overturned by a panel of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2008 on statute of limitations grounds. In June 2009 the full 5th Circuit heard the issue and split 9-9, which had the effect of reinstating the conviction. A few months ago the Supreme Court declined to hear the matter, although it will probably reach the Court again next year.

The statute of limitations issue is quite complicated, but the basic issue is whether the law in effect in 1964, which did not have a statute of limitations, controls, or whether the law in effect in 1972, which imposes a 5-year statute, controls. The Justice Department has estimated that the answer might affect the prosecution of two dozen race murders from the sixties.

Where is James Ford Seale now?

MacLean: Seale is in the federal prison in Terra Haute, Indiana. He is a terribly sick man, on oxygen and painkillers, and there is some serious doubt that he will survive the appellate process. If he dies before it is complete, he will be officially innocent.

Do you think justice was done? If so, why?

MacLean: I think Seale was definitely involved in the killing of the two youths. An informant came forward to the FBI in the fall of 1964 and repeated in detail the story that James and several other Klansman had told him about the killing. This story matched in all essential details the story told by Charles Edwards on the witness stand about what Seale had told him about his involvement in the murders. The irony, of course, is that had Seale kept his mouth shut there would have been no basis for prosecution and he would still be a free man.

Any breaking news on the case?

MacLean: A review of FBI and State Sovereignty Commission files revealed what had long been rumored: Jack Seale, James' older brother and considered by many to be the craziest member of the family, was a paid informant for the FBI. He apparently tried to recruit James, but after toying with the idea, James had nothing to do with it. His hatred of law enforcement was too deep.

About the Author
Harry N. MacLean is a writer and lawyer living in Denver, Colorado. His first book, In Broad Daylight, won an Edgar Award for Best True Crime and was also a New York Times bestseller. His second book, Once Upon A Time: A True Story of Memory, Murder and the Law, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. MacLean has worked as an adjunct professor of law, juvenile court magistrate, First Assistant Attorney General of Colorado, General Counsel of the Peace Corps, and an arbitrator and mediator in labor disputes.

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