Miss. Officials Agree To Settlement In '64 Slayings

Officials in Franklin County, Miss., have agreed to settle a civil suit charging county law enforcement officials with aiding and abetting the Ku Klux Klan in the 1964 murders of Charles Moore and Henry Dee. Michele Norris talks to Margaret Burnham, an attorney for the families of Moore and Dee, who says this case shows that justice delayed is not always justice denied.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

On May 2nd, 1964 in the tiny town of Meadville, Mississippi, two 19-year-old black men disappeared while walking along a highway on the edge of town. Two months later, the partial remains of a black man washed ashore in a remote stretch of the Mississippi River. Police identified the victim as Charles Moore, based on a college I.D. in a pants pocket.

Another two months passed before FBI investigators got an anonymous tip about the disappearance of Moore and his friend, Henry Dee. That informant described how Dee and Moore were kidnapped by the Ku Klux Klan and driven to a wooded area where they were beaten and then tied to an old engine block before being dumped into the river while they were still alive.

The families of the two young men filed a civil lawsuit against Franklin County, Mississippi, claiming that local law enforcement officials aided and abetted the Klan. And today they reached a settlement.

Margaret Burnham is one of their attorneys. She's the director of the Civil Rights Restorative Justice program at Northeastern University, and she joins us now. Welcome to the program, Professor Burnham.

Professor MARGARET BURNHAM (Attorney-Director, Civil Rights Restorative Justice Project): Thank you.

NORRIS: Was this a monetary settlement?

Prof. BURNHAM: It was a monetary settlement.

NORRIS: And you're not able to talk about the dollar amount?

Prof. BURNHAM: No, I can't. Thats all I can tell you is that the parties did reach a settlement.

NORRIS: Why were the families so convinced that local law enforcement was involved with the Klan?

Prof. BURNHAM: This case, from now 46 years ago, came back to public attention when the Justice Department in 2007 pursued a criminal case against one of the Klansmen. In the course of that investigation, one of the members of the Klan group who had committed the murder came forward with the full story. He made clear that the local sheriff and his deputy were in some way involved in the events that led to the killing of Dee and Moore on May 2nd.

We don't allege that the sheriff himself was present at the time the young men were either tortured or thrown into the river. But we do allege that he had sufficient information so that he could have, but did not, intervene on the day in question.

NORRIS: Let me ask you about the criminal case. Back in 2007, James Ford Seale, a Klansman and former police officer, was arrested in connection with the Dee and Moore murder. How did this story, long buried, come roaring back because Seale and his brother, who was also allegedly connected to this crime, were both presumed around the state of Mississippi to have been dead.

Ms. BURNHAM: James Ford Seale himself passed on the rumor that he was dead, and as a result of that, there was no ongoing investigation until one of the family members of one of the victims decided to take it upon himself to go back down to Mississippi to Franklin County and to see what he could find out.

He then approached the U.S. attorney and asked the U.S. attorney to reopen the matter.

NORRIS: And we need to note that James Ford Seale was convicted and is serving three life sentences. What does this settlement today do toward pushing the families and Franklin County as a whole toward something close to closure?

Ms. BURNHAM: After the criminal trial, which brought out many of the facts in the case, the settlement does represent the end of the line here. The civil excuse me the civil case and the criminal case were both important because they made clear that the past still matters, that there is no expiration date on moral obligation.

And so in that sense, this case is very much like efforts going on really across the world to end impunity for human rights violations. So this case illustrates that in the United States, we have our own truth and reconciliation work to do. And it's part of a movement to reinvestigate or reopen these cases of the Civil Rights era.

Twenty-three such cases have been reopened on the criminal side, and there have been 23 convictions in connection with those cases. So this is a little piece with that.

NORRIS: Professor Margaret Burnham, she's the director of the Civil Rights Restorative Justice Program at Northeastern University School of Law. Thank you very much.

Ms. BURNHAM: Thank you.

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