Trial Set to Begin in Civil Rights-Era Murder Case
Jury selection begins this week in Jackson, Miss., in the trial of a former reputed Klansman accused of murdering two 19-year-old black men more than 40 years ago.
James Ford Seale, 71, was indicted on federal kidnapping and conspiracy charges earlier this year. Prosecutors say that in May 1964, Seale stopped to pick up Charles Eddie Moore and Henry Hezekiah Dee, who were hitchhiking in rural Mississippi. The two men were never seen alive again.
A Nation's Eyes on Mississippi
The summer of 1964 was known as Freedom Summer in Mississippi and throughout the South, because of efforts to get African Americans registered to vote. That summer, the bodies of Moore and Dee turned up in the Mississippi River.
Gene Young, a civil rights activist in Jackson, was just 13 years old at the time.
"I remember reading a national account that some bodies had been found. I think we were all fearful," Young said.
Young was working with CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality. All eyes were on Mississippi, because three young voting-rights activists had disappeared in what became known as the famous Mississippi Burning case. The FBI was called in and hundreds of agents searched for the men. That's when the bodies of Moore and Dee were discovered.
According to FBI documents, Klansmen picked up the men in Meadville and took them into the Homochitto National Forest. There they were severely beaten, dumped into the trunk of a car, driven across the state line to Louisiana, weighted down with an engine block and left to drown in the Mississippi River.
Young says it was a tense time in the state.
"White supremacy was the status quo in Mississippi. To some people, it was just sport to go out and harass and kill black people," he said.
The Klan made its presence known in Mississippi by firebombing homes and threatening anyone who spoke up against segregation and Jim Crow laws. The FBI did investigate the murders of Moore and Dee but left it up to state officials to prosecute. Seale was arrested in November 1964. But the charges against him were eventually dropped and the murders largely forgotten.
A Brother's Search for Justice
Thomas Moore, the older brother of Charles Eddie Moore, told NPR that he and his family spent years searching for information about the murders.
"My family — there was no way we could forget it, but we didn't want to remember," Moore said.
Moore said that at the time, a local sheriff sent his mother more than 150 miles away when she began asking questions about the incident. Moore said he has had nightmares about the murders throughout his life.
"We didn't have money to solicit help from attorneys," Moore said. "So the old saying is, we just had to eat it up."
The prosecution of a number of former Klansmen in reopened civil rights cases gave Moore and his family hope. Among the convictions: Byron De La Beckwith for the assassination of Medgar Evers; Edgar Ray Killen for his role in ordering the murders of the three civil rights workers in the Mississippi Burning case; and Tommy Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry for the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.
Seale says he is not guilty and denies that he was a member of the Klan. But there are questions about statements he made 43 years ago. FBI agents confronted Seale, saying they knew he committed the crime. Seale responded, "Yes. But I am not going to admit it. You are going to have to prove it."
Back in 2000, Jerry Mitchell, a reporter for The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, spoke to Seale. Mitchell says he asked Seale whether he was concerned about authorities taking another look at the case. According to Mitchell, Seale answered, "They don't have any more than you've got — and that's nothing."
It's not easy to try old civil rights cases like this one, because witnesses are dying. Doug Jones, the former U.S. attorney in Birmingham, says these cases are important.
"I think [it] speaks volumes of how far we've come as a society," Jones said. "We're trying to do those things... [to] make right the wrongs that occurred and look forward."
That's a big change from the 1960s, when witnesses kept quiet and all-white juries rarely convicted anyone of hate crimes — no matter how strong the evidence.
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