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'Dead' Klansman on trial over 1964 deaths
Tuesday May 29, 2007
Thomas Moore is looking forward to finally confronting face-to-face James Ford Seale, a Ku Klux Klansman who came back from the dead.
"I want to look at him," he said. "I want to tell him about the pain he caused me and my family."
Moore, 63, a retired sergeant major, today recalled the day he found out that Seale was still alive. "I was so happy. We thought the guy was dead and so did everyone else."
The trial opens tomorrow in the Mississippi state capital, Jackson, of Seale, 71, a former worker in a paper plant, crop duster and police officer, accused of kidnapping and conspiracy in relation to the murder of two black teenagers in 1964, one of them Moore's brother.
According to the indictment, the two 19-year-olds, Moore and Henry Dee, were kidnapped by the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, tortured and dumped in the Mississippi river, Moore tied to a Jeep engine block, and, according to an FBI informant at the time, still breathing. The killings marked the beginning of a summer of madness, as the KKK responded to the civil rights movement with the fiery crosses, church bombings and murders depicted in Alan Parker's 1988 film, Mississippi Burning.
The Seale prosecution could be among the last of the KKK trials. Although the justice department has promised to reopen cases, witnesses are dying off and files have been lost.
Now living in Colorado, Moore had been brought up in Franklin County, one of the strongholds of the White Knights. He returned in 2005 with a Canadian filmmaker, David Ridgen, to investigate the murders.
Pulling up at a petrol station for an egg and sausage sandwich, he met by chance a distant cousin, Kenny Byrd. Moore explained why they were in Franklin County and said it was a pity that Seale, who had been one of the main suspects, was dead. His family had been saying so since 2000. The local Clarion-Ledger had reported it as fact: so too had the Los Angeles Times. Byrd replied: "Hell no, he lives over there."
Moore, tracing lost files, speaking to potential witnesses, harrassing former Klansmen and mobilising the African-American community, successfully campaigned to have the FBI reopen the case.
Seale is expected to plead not guilty, in a trial expected to last about a fortnight. If found guilty, he faces life in prison.
The discovery of the bodies was depicted in Mississippi Burning. The FBI had been hunting for three missing civil rights activists _ two white, one black _ and when a fisherman found Moore's body, the agents, the government and media were initially excited. That passed quickly when it was realised, as a BBC report at the time put it, they had the "wrong body".
It was this that caught the interest of Ridgen, who works for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. "How can it be a wrong body?," he said, adding that the contrast between the interest in the two cases was simply down to the fact that whites were involved in one and only blacks in the other.
"The difference was stark. When whites were involved, the world went crazy."
Mississippi is different these days, at least on the surface. It is evident to anyone arriving at the airport at Jackson, now called Jackson-Evers International in recognition of the civil rights leader, Medgar Evans, who was assassinated in 1963. It is evident too in the fact that the judge who will try the case, Henry Wingate, is African-American.
But Heidi Beirich, the deputy director of intelligence at a Jackson-based civil rights group, the Southern Poverty Law Centre, which investigates hate crimes, cautioned that though the Ku Klux Klan and institutionalised racism is mainly a thing of the past, Mississippi still has problems.
She noted that when the state voted in 2002 to retain the Confederate flag, a symbol of hate for African-Americans, the divide was on racial grounds. In addition, African-Americans in the state continue to live in the poorest areas, with the worst schools.
"As far as the Klan is concerned, its heyday is definitely in the past. It hit its peak in the 1920s at 4 million. The number of Klansmen is way down: we estimate 5,000 - 6,000. It is not a cohesive organisation any longer: it is fragmented. They are no longer capable of the kind of terror they rained down on the South in the 1950s and 1960s," Ms Beirich said.
But the sense of dread inspired by he KKK has not gone completely. Ridgen, who put together a documentary, Mississippi Cold Case, said: "The psychological threat was always there. There was fear every time in Franklin County. We never took the same route. We never told anyone in advance about coming."
At the trial, the key witness is likely to be a former Klansman, Charles Edwards, a suspect at the time, who is expected to give evidence against Seale in return for immunity.
Former FBI agents who carried out a fairly thorough investigation at the time are also scheduled to testify. After their investigation in 1964, they handed over the case to the local justice department that, as was not unusual at the time, quickly dropped it.
No real explanation has been given for the killings. Klansmen at the time told the FBI that Dee had been peeping at one of their wives while others alleged gun smuggling into a black church.
The indictment suggests otherwise: "The White Knights... targeted for violence African-Americans they believed were involved in civil rights activity in order to intimidate and retaliate against such individuals."
Dee's sister, Thelma Collins, who now lives in Louisiana, said today she could not remember him being involved in any civil rights activity. "He was quiet, never said much," she recalled.
She is saddened that the case took 43 years to come to court: "It is pitiful that those boys were killed and no one did anything about it. If it had been me, they would have brought me to trial."
She will be given an opportunity at the trial to make a victim's statement and will speak about her brother. She is dreading seeing Seale, but promised: "I am not going to say anything harsh." Moore will also get a chance to make a victim's statement. He intends to tell Seale about his younger brother, a student at a technical college.
Moore was in the army at the time: "We never had a chance to talk about what he wanted to be. He would have gone further than me. He had more ambition than me."
He will look directly at Seale. "I want to tell how it is to go without a brother, my son without an uncle, how Charles never had the opportunity to make mistakes, to live his life."
The reopening of racist killing cases from the 1960s in the south began in 1990 when a white supremicist, Byron La Beckwith, was indicted and eventually jailed for the assassination in 1963 of Medgar Evans, who was chairman of the Mississippi of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People.
This encouraged the FBI and local justice departments to look again at unsolved cases. Since then, there has been six prosecutions in Mississippi, including Seale's tomorrow.
Authorities in seven states have re-examined a total of 29 killings and made 29 arrests, leading to 22 convictions.
One of the most prominent was the trial and jailing in 2001 of Thomas Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry for the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four young girls.
The revulsion created by the bombing helped turn public opinion behind the civil rights movement.
In 2005, Edgar Ray Killen, 80, was jailed for the murder of the three civil rights activists depicted in Mississippi Burning. But the reality is there may not be many more: witnesses are dying off and records have been lost.
Source: Guardian Unlimited