Seale Could Be Among Last of Klan 'Cold Cases'

The trial of 71-year-old James Seale on kidnapping charges related to the 1964 murder of two black Mississippi teens might be among the last of a flurry of trials involving civil-rights era cases.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Since 1989, there have been 28 arrests and 22 convictions involving murder cases from the civil rights era. Last month's arrest of James Seale in Mississippi may be one of the last.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Seale faces kidnapping charges and the murders of two black teenagers more than 40 years ago.

NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports on the deadly spring and summer of 1964 and how, until now, suspects like Seale slipped away from the criminal justice system.

WADE GOODWYN: By 1964, the civil rights movement was hitting full stride. It was organized, it was unified, and the movement was determined to break the back of Jim Crow in Mississippi and Alabama.

Mr. DAVID DENNIS (Field Director, Congress of Racial Equality, Mississippi): It was sort of like a war zone at that particular time. And the state of Mississippi had said never, that they would never integrate and that black people will never be part of the democratic process. And so we took that challenge on. We felt that if we could break Mississippi, we could do it any place.

GOODWYN: In 1964, David Dennis was field director for CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality in Mississippi. That day on June 21st, Dennis was supposed to have been traveling with three of his young organizers, Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner. But faith intervened.

Mr. DENNIS: What happens is that I was supposed to go with them and I had a very bad case of bronchitis.

GOODWYN: Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner, traveling across the state, were scheduled to check in at their destination at 4:00. By 5:00, CORE organizers began to raise the alarm. Dennis knew if he didn't hear anything soon, Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner were probably dead. If the Klan got you, you are gone. Everyone was playing for keeps.

Mr. DENNIS: About 5:30, 6:00, and that was when I was told that they were missing. And knowing Mickey Schwerner and James Chaney, they didn't take any chances in that area.

GOODWYN: Two of the victims were young, white, Jewish and from New York City, and the story captured national media. The federal government made a major effort to investigate, enlisting 400 navy sailors to help search. In the process, they found two people chained up and drowned in the Mississippi River. But it wasn't Goodman, Chaney or Schwerner. It was two 19-year-old black men, Charles Dee and Henry Moore, victims of the Klan nobody even knew about.

Mr. JERRY MITCHELL (Reporter, The Clarion-Ledger): I mean, they just picked these kids up for nothing, basically. Take them out and beat them until they're bloody. Load them into the trunk and take them out to the river. Tied them with duct tape, weighed them down, thrown them in the river. That's pretty darn heartless.

GOODWYN: Jerry Mitchell is a reporter for The Clarion-Ledger, who's reporting has led to the conviction of four Klansmen for civil rights murders. After Charles Dee and Henry Moore were found drowned, the FBI arrested James Seale, the son of a chapter leader of the Klan, and another Klansman named Charles Edwards. Edwards and Seale admitted their involvement but then the Department of Justice did something surprising. Instead of prosecuting, it turned the case over to the local district attorney in Natchez. Mitchell says the district attorney, not surprisingly, quickly dropped all the charges.

Mr. MITCHELL: The three civil rights workers' case took up so much energy and so much oxygen, and I think that these were forgotten killings.

GOODWYN: Mitchell began writing extensively about the murders in 2000, pointing out that Dee and Moore had been kidnapped and whipped into unconsciousness in the Homochitto National Forest, and therefore the alleged perpetrators were subject to federal prosecution. His coverage helped get the Justice Department into motion. And Mitchell got the only interview James Seale has given.

Mr. MITCHELL: He was absolutely in no fear of ever being prosecuted. I mean, he made that abundantly clear. I ain't in jail, am I? That was the attitude I saw in a number of these other guys - Klan guys I went to talk to. I know the prosecutor and he's not going to do anything and, you know.

GOODWYN: Some Southern prosecutors did try to indict a few of the Klan murderers. But white juries were a tough sell. And another problem for state prosecutors revolved around the relationship between the FBI and local law enforcement in Mississippi and Alabama. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover believed the local authorities in the deep South were hopelessly infiltrated by the Klan. So even though the FBI had often obtained vital evidence from informants that could have convicted some of these alleged murderers, Hoover wouldn't allow local prosecutors or the police or sheriff access to those files. He was worried the Klan would kill the bureau's informants.

Mr. BOB EDDY (Former State Investigator, Alabama): There were some Klan sympathizers within the police department in Birmingham and they probably were in a lot of the police departments in the South.

GOODWYN: In the mid-1970s, Bob Eddy was the lead investigator for Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley. By 1976, the wheels had turned enough that the attorney general decided to reopen the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing Case. It had been a stain on the state since 1963.

On a Sunday morning in September of that year, four members of the Klan placed 19 sticks of dynamite next to a church wall. On the other side of the wall, dozens of black children were getting ready for Sunday service. When the dynamite exploded, four girls were killed. Robert Chambliss, known in Birmingham as Dynamite Bob, was originally charged with two accomplices but the charges ended up being dismissed. But in 1976, Bob Eddy began his own investigation. His boss, Baxley, had convinced the FBI to let Eddy look at some of the FBI's files. The catch was Eddy and the files had to stay in the FBI office.

Mr. EDDY: In reading the files, you knew that there was a lot more to it than that. You'd read the interview and know that they would have proceeded further. I knew that the files weren't complete.

GOODWYN: Eddy slowly began to figure out who some of the informants were. From the FBI office, he would call the informants and leave them a message to call him back. When they did, the operator would answer FBI. The informant would incorrectly assume Eddy was with the FBI. It was a misunderstanding Bob Eddy did nothing to rectify.

Mr. EDDY: They assumed I knew what all was in their files. I didn't. I just knew how I come across their name. And that way, it helped us a lot. Because when they would tell me what they had told the FBI, then they'd give the file.

GOODWYN: And slowly but surely, that's how Bob Eddy essentially rebuilt the case that sent Dynamite Bob Chambliss to prison for the rest of his life. And now in Mississippi, 71-year-old James Seale also faces the prospect of dying in prison. He's pleaded innocent to all charges. For civil rights organizer Hollis Watkins, who was in Mississippi with SNCC, these prosecutions are bittersweet.

Mr. HOLLIS WATKINS (Civil Rights Organizer, SNCC): It's good that the wheel of justice is turning. But it's also unfortunate that it turns so slow.

GOODWYN: Forty-two years after the bodies of Henry Dee and Charles Moore were pulled from the Mississippi River, chained to an engine block, James Seale will go on trial in April

Wade Goodwyn, NPR News.

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