JURIST Guest Columnist Margaret Burnham
of Northeastern University School of Law says the trial of alleged Klansman James Seale, accused of kidnapping and then drowning two young men in southwest Mississippi in May 1964, highlights both Mississippi's historical role in Klan violence and the grievous shortcomings of federal law enforcement in the civil rights era...
or the past three weeks the James O. Eastland Federal Courthouse in Jackson, MS. has been the scene of what may turn out to be one of the most significant criminal civil rights trials in decades and yet it has been a sleeper as far as the national press is concerned. A racially mixed jury, sitting before an African-American federal judge, is hearing evidence in the conspiracy trial of an alleged Klansman accused of kidnapping and then drowning two young men in southwest Mississippi in May 1964. As I listened to some of the gripping testimony earlier this month, two points seemed clear. The first is that there were five - not three - civil rights slayings immediately prior to Mississippi Freedom Summer. And the second is that the federal government’s failure to fully alert the public to the nature of Klan/law enforcement collusion in Mississippi exposed African-Americans and civil rights activists to lethal harm.
The victims in the case, Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Moore, 19 years old when they were murdered, were snatched off a road in the town of Meadville by a group of Klansmen. The youths were taken to a federal forest, beaten, and then, still alive, tied to heavy metal weights and dumped in the Mississippi River. With the discovery of their bodies by a fisherman over a month later, the FBI launched an intensive investigation. The evidence that the Bureau accumulated made clear who in the Klan committed the murders, and indeed, in November 1964, two members of the White Knights of the KKK, Charles Marcus Edwards and James Ford Seale, were arrested on warrants obtained by the Franklin County district attorney.
But the case against the men was never brought before a state or federal grand jury. Two months after the arrests the district attorney, claiming he did not have “sufficient evidence,” moved to dismiss the charges and the men were released. The current trial – 43 years after the killings – is the first public airing of the horrific crime.
On June 5, an immunized Charles Edwards took the stand and spilled out the chilling details of the crime in the trial of James Seale, now 71 years old. Edwards’ testimony, with that of other witnesses, offers fresh insight into the egregious role of federal authorities in combating anti-civil rights violence in the 1960s, and challenges the traditional picture of the nature and consequences of such violence.
As is now well known, the Dee/Moore murders would likely have gone completely unnoticed but for the fact that on June 21, 1964, six weeks after Dee and Moore were slain, civil rights workers Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman – two of whom were white - were killed in Philadelphia, MS, and world attention was riveted on the massive FBI search for them. In fact, when the bodies of Dee and Moore were first pulled from the waters of the Mississippi on July 12, the authorities thought they might be the Philadelphia victims. The Dee/Moore case received little public attention until, in 2005, Charles Moore’s brother, Thomas, launched a successful campaign to get federal prosecutors to take another look at the file. That re-examination resulted in the January 2007 kidnap indictment followed by the current trial.
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?
One particularly dire consequence of the FBI’s failure to oversee the investigation to a proper conclusion was that it deprived the American public of the ability fully to connect the murders of Dee and Moore with those of the three Philadelphia victims. In 1964, the deep public revulsion at the deaths of Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman led to some measure of increased protection for civil rights activities, but the federal government was still far too slow to override state authorities, and a number of civil rights related murders occurred even after the Philadelphia killings in June 1964. What if the public had fully appreciated that there were not three, but five documented civil rights murders in Mississippi within 60 days before the commencement of the Freedom Summer campaign? Would that knowledge have led to more effective federal intervention to protect the safety of black activists and their allies?
Until very recently, the murders of Dee and Moore have been distinguished from others of the period that more neatly fit the mold of “civil rights crime” because the victims were known activists or leaders. But there is more similarity than difference in these cases. The killers of Dee and Moore acted within weeks of the inception of the Freedom Summer, which was deeply feared by Mississippi’s white establishment. Like the men who shot to death the Philadelphia three, the Dee/Moore conspirators claimed to be protecting the state from black activism. And both crimes were meant to intimidate blacks engaged in or considering resistance. At the Dee/Moore trial there was testimony that the minister of the church searched by the county sheriff was warned that whites were planning to bomb his church, and the day after Dee and Moore’s bodies were discovered, shots were fired into the minister’s home. The sheriff must have believed the intimidation succeeded, for in October 1964 he proudly reassured state officials that there were no civil rights “or subversive organizations” operating in his county.
The Dee/Moore killings establish a close link between the classic civil rights slayings of, for example, King and Evers, and those like Emmett Till that appear to reflect a more unspecific if not any less lethal form of race hatred. Till was targeted as an outside threat – he was from Chicago, where Hezekiah Dee had vacationed before his fateful return home to Meadville. But the Till murder, just like that of Dee, Moore, Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman – and Henry Lee, Louis Allen, Vernon Dahmer, and Medgar Evers – was an anti-civil rights crime intended to terrorize those who might resist white racism. The failure of the FBI to classify the slaying of Dee and Moore as a civil rights crime – the local newspaper dubbed the case the “torso murders” - and to investigate it as vigorously as the Philadelphia murders left the nation, and its leaders in the White House, with a woefully incomplete picture of the mortal threats facing the civil rights movement.
No matter what the verdict is, the evidence in this trial will help set the record straight on the State of Mississippi’s participation in Klan violence as well as on the grievous shortcomings of federal law enforcement during this era. Margaret A. Burnham is Professor of Law at Northeastern University School of Law, where she teaches and writes on civil rights.