Belated Justice for Civil Rights Era Crimes

For the last eight days in Jackson, Mississippi, reputed Ku Klux Klan member James Ford Seale has sat, mostly silent, in the James O. Eastland U.S. Courthouse. Seale has been watching the parade of witnesses take the stand -- his former daughter-in-law, his pastor, a fellow Klansman, FBI agents, a retired Navy diver, an elderly church deacon, a small town newspaper publisher -- to testify about his involvement in the 1964 murders of Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Eddie Moore, two 19-year-old black men from southwest Mississippi.

The horrific deaths of the two young men, and their families' years of suffering without remediation, illustrate why it is so important for perpetrators to be brought to justice, even decades after the crime was committed. "I've had nightmares every night for 43 years," Charles Moore's older brother Thomas told me in April. The Dee-Moore murders also raise questions about government complicity in Civil Rights era crimes -- and whether case-by-case prosecutions are an adequate response.

On May 2, 1964, Dee and Moore were hitchhiking from Meadville, Miss. and were picked up by James Seale. Seale and other Klansmen took the two men into the surrounding Homochitto National Forest and tortured and interrogated them about a possible influx of guns in Franklin County meant to arm blacks against their white attackers. Later the same day, several of the Klansmen put Dee and Moore in the trunk of a car and hauled them across the Louisiana state line, 100 miles north to a spot on the Mississippi River. Then they dumped the men into the river, weighting their bodies down with a jeep engine block and pieces of railroad track.

The Dee-Moore murders were referred to as the "Torso Murders" because only parts of the young men's bodies were initially found in the river, starting with Moore's lower torso on July 12, 1964. Though the FBI made an initial investigation into the homicide, it quickly dropped the case. International attention on the disappearance of civil rights activists James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman -- two of whom were white northerners -- and the violent response to the massive, statewide "Freedom Summer" voter registration program, pushed the Dee and Moore murders out of the media spotlight.

Decades later, there have been fewer than two dozen convictions for an untold numbers of murders of blacks and their allies during the civil rights era. And civil rights activists have differing ideas about how to remedy the situation. "It's important to send a message to the new generation that crime doesn't pay. Our laws have to work for us," said John Steele, son of civil rights pioneers Cornelius and Mable Steele, who were contacts for Chaney and Schwerner in the black community in Philadelphia, Mississippi, before Klansmen murdered Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman on June 21, 1964.

But, while acknowledging the value of the 2005 prosecution of Klan member Edgar Ray Killen for the victims' families and communities, Rita Schwerner Bender, widow of Michael Schwerner, insists on a broader view. "We delude ourselves if we think a few trials of a few old men will allow the necessary societal confrontation," she said at the Crimes of the Civil Rights Era conference, held in Boston in April. "The trial focuses on the particular acts of individual defendants, but unfortunately also permits the overreaching societal and governmental issues to be lost in the attention to detail." (Killen was convicted of manslaughter for the deaths of Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman. There was sufficient evidence to arrest and/or indict on federal charges related to the murders eight other men in the 1960s, who are still living free today.)

Attorney John Dorsey Due, Jr. agrees with Bender. Due represented Chaney and Schwerner after they were arrested in demonstrations in Meridian, Mississippi in June 1964. "Rather than trying to seek retribution or retaliation for the violence that took place, we need to have Congress use its power to investigate what was the level of violence and how far along a command structure did this violence go," he says.

Due was perhaps the first person to investigate violence against blacks in southwest Mississippi. In April and May of 1964, Due collected affidavits from blacks who had been shot, beaten or terrorized with cross burnings and other means. He was to give this information to the Mississippi Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights, to be used in their report on the need for federal protection and support of voting rights to be included in the 1964 Civil Rights Bill that Congress was considering.

One night in the spring of 1964, Due was arrested for speeding past a state police road block. He had lost his cool, fearing he could be detained for his activities and turned over to the Klan. "While I was sitting in the patrol car, I heard on the police radio Mr. Julian Bond had just arrived at the Jackson Municipal Airport," Due recalled. "I heard the flight number, and they described the car that Julian Bond rented and even described where they believed Bond was going."

This incident confirmed for Due that "there was a network that included the state police to identify all people who were working in civil rights -- observing who they were, their conduct, their business. If there was a connection with the KKK or others who wanted to do violence, they had a network to do that."

On August 8, 1964, four days after the bodies of Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman were discovered, Klansman Ernest Gilbert secretly began talking to the FBI about the Dee-Moore case. Almost 12 weeks later, on October 31, Gilbert's information led to the discovery of Dee and Moore's remains, and days later Mississippi Highway Patrol officers and FBI agents arrested James Seale and Charles Edwards for the murders. But District Attorney Lennox Forman never brought the case to the Grand Jury. He dropped the charges altogether by January 11, 1965.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation recently reported that at the time of the arrests of Seale and Edwards, Mississippi Governor Paul Johnson successfully lobbied J. Edgar Hoover to suppress the role of the state policemen in the murder investigation. In documents obtained by the CBC, Johnson told an FBI special agent that "if it became generally known within the state that the Mississippi Highway Safety Patrol played a prominent investigative role in this case, in all likelihood the next session of the Mississippi Legislature would attempt to enact a new law which would strip the Governor and the Highway Patrol of their arrest powers."

"After the state refused to indict on murder, why weren't there federal civil rights charges brought against Seale and the other guys," asked Kenneth O'Reilly, author of Racial Matters: The FBI's Secret File on Black America, 1960-72. "That's what they did with the Schwerner, Chaney, Goodman murders. They followed that up with federal civil rights charges." Prior to the Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman murders, and the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the FBI's preference was to "stay on the sidelines, do nothing but take notes and snap photographs," according to O'Reilly. "If they get too involved they're going to alienate white southerners -- and that's Hoover's constituency -- and if they don't get involved at all they're going to alienate northern liberals, and -- believe it or not -- that's Hoover's constituency, too."

But, as O'Reilly noted, at this point, in the fall of 1964, "You have people cooperating to destroy the Ku Klux Klan even if they themselves are segregationists … they realize the battle is ending; segregation is over." O'Reilly's assertion seems borne out by a Sovereignty Commission report from October 22, 1964. The Sovereignty Commission was the spy agency established by the Mississippi State Legislature in 1956 to monitor and oppose civil rights activity. The Commission's files were declassified in 1998 and are available online.

One section of the report states that "state and federal officers are working with the local police department and the sheriff's office in an attempt to solve several beatings of Negroes by white men believed to be KKK members, several church burnings in the area, several bombings, and the murder of at least two Negroes and possibly more within the last several months." Elsewhere the report makes clear that the "two negroes" were Dee and Moore. Given this intensive, joint mobilization of local, state and federal investigators, it is all the more surprising that state murder charges, as well as federal civil rights charges, were dropped altogether.

"Prosecuting a token few and protecting the vast majority of murderers continues to send the message that one can murder black people and (most likely) get away with it," said Diane Nash, a founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and a leader in the Nashville sit-ins, the Freedom Rides and the Selma Right-to-Vote movement. She says we must not forget "there were other bodies found in 1964, while the FBI was looking for the bodies of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. Those murders apparently have never been investigated nor has anyone been prosecuted for them. The same is true for bodies found in rivers, bayous, etc. throughout the state."

In order "to create a justice-seeking atmosphere," says Alvin Sykes, President of the Emmett Till Justice Campaign, "there needs to be resources allocated that are massive enough to be able to hire additional investigators and attorneys and be able to conduct simultaneous investigations across the country in those areas where there is jurisdiction to prosecute before time runs out." Sykes has been a driving force behind the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Act, likely to become law this month, which would allocate $11.5 million annually for a special FBI office and Civil Rights Division unit to investigate civil rights era crimes in coordination with local and state authorities.

Greater funding for investigations and dedicated arms of federal law enforcement greatly increase the potential for justice, but Sykes is quick to acknowledge that the nature of the crimes, the vast number of them, and the amount of time that has passed all require a large-scale commitment from the broader society.

"Just as years ago we had Freedom Riders coming through the South, helping to overcome the Jim Crow laws and activities," Sykes said, emphasizing the need of government and citizens to reach out to victims, "we will now have to have Justice Riders coming through the South and other parts throughout the migration route, through which people fled the South -- to find the cases where Johnny left and never came back or was taken."

Congressman Kendrick Meek (D-FL) is a co-sponsor of the legislation and chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. He says prosecutions of race-based crimes under the Till Act "will answer questions that have gone unasked for too long." But Meek also believes in looking further than the courtroom will allow. "This nation is mature enough to revisit the uglier chapters of our history, and Congressional hearings into Civil Rights-era crimes are a fitting venue to revisit our past."

Jurors are likely to begin deliberations today in Seale's trial for the murders of Henry Dee and Charles Moore. Still waiting for some measure of justice, the victims' family members had the limited satisfaction last week of an apology from Charles Marcus Edwards, an admitted Klansman who was also involved in the Dee-Moore murders, who testified with immunity against Seale. Thomas Moore, Charles' older brother, accepted Edwards’ apology. It may have seemed like a tiny gesture after so many years without justice. But for most families of the multitude of victims of civil rights era crimes, even this small acknowledgment is at best a fantasy.