By: The Associated Press and E&P Staff
A white former sheriff’s deputy who was once thought to be dead was arrested on federal charges Wednesday in one of the last major unsolved crimes of the civil rights era – the 1964 killings of two black men who were beaten and dumped alive into the Mississippi River.
The break in the 43-year-old case was largely the result of the dogged efforts of the older brother of one of the victims, who vowed to bring the killers to justice.
James Ford Seale, a 71-year-old reputed Ku Klux Klansman from the town of Roxie, was charged with kidnapping hitchhikers Charles Eddie Moore and Henry Hezekiah Dee, both 19.
The victims’ weighted, badly decomposed bodies were found by chance two months later in July 1964, during the search for three civil rights workers whose disappearance and deaths in Philadelphia, Miss., got far more attention from the media and the FBI.
Seale is expected to be arraigned Thursday in Jackson.
A second man long suspected in the attack, church deacon and reputed KKK member Charles Marcus Edwards, now 72, was not charged. Sources close to the investigation who spoke on condition of anonymity said Edwards was cooperating with authorities. Prosecutors did not say why Seale was not charged with murder.
The arrest marked the latest attempt by prosecutors in the South to close the books on crimes from the civil rights era that went unpunished. In recent years, authorities in Mississippi and Alabama have won convictions in the 1963 assassination of NAACP activist Medgar Evers; the 1963 Birmingham, Ala., church bombing that killed four black girls; and the 1964 Philadelphia, Miss., slayings.
“I’ve been crying. First time I’ve cried in about 50 years,” Moore’s 63-year-old brother, Thomas, said after the arrest. “It’s not going to bring his life back. But some way or another, I think he would be satisfied.”
Dee’s sister, Thelma Collins, told The Associated Press through grateful sobs: “I never thought I would live to see it, no sir, I never did. I always prayed that justice would be done – somehow, some way.”
Seale and Edwards are suspected of kidnapping the two victims in a Klan crackdown prompted by rumors that black Muslims were planning an armed “insurrection” in rural Franklin County. Seale and Edwards were arrested at the time.
But, consumed by the search for the three missing civil rights workers, the FBI turned the case over to local authorities. And a justice of the peace promptly threw out all charges against Seale and Edwards.
In 2000, the Justice Department’s civil rights unit reopened the case.
For years, Seale’s family had told reporters that he had died. But in 2005, Thomas Moore and a Canadian documentary filmmaker, David Ridgen, found Seale, old and sick, living just a few miles down the road from where the kidnapping took places.
“If they hadn’t brought it to my attention, I wouldn’t have known to do anything,” said U.S. Attorney Dunn Lampton, chief federal prosecutor in Jackson.
Thomas Moore said he always carried a burden of guilt over his younger brother’s death.
“I walked around with an amount of shame,” the Colorado Springs, Colo., man said. “I didn’t know why, why it happened to us, that I wasn’t there to do something – to do SOMETHING.”
Former Gov. William Winter, who was co-chairman of President Clinton’s racial reconciliation initiative, said the latest arrest – though done by federal rather than state authorities – shows that Mississippi “now is obviously seeking to make up for lost time in bringing people to justice.”
“Mississippi is taking a look at those crimes that were committed in a different era when a different attitude prevailed,” said Winter, who was governor in the 1980s.
On May 2, 1964, Charles Moore and Dee were hitchhiking near an ice cream stand in the town of Meadville when Seale pulled over and offered them a ride, a Klan informant told the FBI. The Klan had heard rumors of black Muslim gunrunning in the area, and Seale believed the two were involved, authorities said.
According to FBI interrogators, Edwards admitted that he and Seale took the two men into the woods for a whipping. But Edwards said both men were alive when he left them.
An informant told the FBI that Seale’s brother and another Klansman took the unconscious blacks to the river, lashed their bodies to a Jeep engine block and some old railroad tracks, and dumped them over the side of a boat. The other Klansmen and the informant have since died.
Searchers were combing the woods and swamps for James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner when the remains of Dee and Moore were discovered near Tallulah, La. The bodies of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were found in an earthen dam in Mississippi a short time later.
According to FBI documents from the 1960s, authorities confronted Seale and told him they knew he and others killed the hitchhikers, and “the Lord above knows you did it.”
“Yes,” Seale was quoted as replying, “but I’m not going to admit it. You are going to have to prove it.”
The U.S. Justice Department reopened the case after The Clarion-Ledger of Jackson uncovered documents indicating that the beatings had occurred in the Homochitto National Forest, giving the FBI jurisdiction. But the case languished until Seale was located.
“I had other plans to confront him a long time ago – violently,” Thomas Moore said.
Seale lived in Roxie, which was once a thriving farm community in southwest Mississippi. It is now dotted with decaying homes, and the only buildings still in use are a small antique store, a bank and a post office.
Bobby Hunt, 55, a lifelong resident of Roxie and a cousin of one of the slain men, Henry Dee, said people have talked less about the murders over the years, but the victims have not been forgotten.
“Henry was a nice person. He would help people,” Hunt said.
He said Seale’s arrest made him feel “a little better.”
“It took all those years but they finally got justice.”
The Association of Atlernative Newsweeklies released this statement on Wednesday.
The Dee-Moore murder case, which has been sporadically reported in the media over the years, gained new steam when the Jackson Free Press (JFP), an alternative newsweekly in Jackson, Miss., reported on July 20, 2005, that Seale was still alive and living in Roxie, Miss. It had previously been reported by The Clarion-Ledger, a daily newspaper in Mississippi, and then repeated nationally, that Seale had died, making it difficult to pursue indictments.
The revelation that he was still alive, reported by Donna Ladd in the July 20, 2005, issue of the Jackson Free Press and picked up later by the Associated Press, provided a way for prosecutors to build a case positioning Edwards’ testimony against Seale, as the accused ringleader of the plan, in exchange for immunity.
The Jackson Free Press began investigating the Dee-Moore case when the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) asked to document JFP reporters covering the Edgar Ray Killen trial in Mississippi to help bring more attention to unsolved cases of murdered black Mississippians. Rita Schwerner Bender, wife of murdered civil-rights worker Michael Schwerner, told reporters at the Killen trial that her husband’s case had only received extensive national attention because he and Andrew Goodman were white. As Ladd and photographer Kate Medley listened on the courthouse lawn, Bender challenged the media to look at other unsolved cases, including one of two black men killed near Natchez.
Soon after the Killen trial, Ladd, Medley and two other young native Mississippians joined with David Ridgen of the CBC to accompany Charles Moore’s brother, Thomas Moore, on a two-week visit back to his hometown to look for justice in his brother’s murder. While on that trip, Moore met with U.S. Attorney Lampton who, coincidentally, had served in the same U.S. Army Gulf War unit as Moore. Lampton, a white Republican from Mississippi, vowed
to help Moore get long-overdue justice.
In 2006, the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies awarded Ladd an investigative reporting award for her package of stories about the Dee-Moore case, and related Klan activity in and around Natchez in the 1960s.