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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In Jackson, Mississippi jury selection begins tomorrow in the trial of James Ford Seale. It's been more than 40 years since two 19-year-old black men were murdered. Earlier this year, Seale, who's 71, was indicted on federal kidnapping and conspiracy charges in the murders. Prosecutors say the reputed Klansman stopped to pick up Charles Moore and Henry Dee, who were hitchhiking in rural Mississippi. The two were never seen alive again.

NPR's Kathy Lohr reports.

KATHY LOHR: It was 1964 and a campaign called Freedom Summer was underway in Mississippi. It was an effort to get African-Americans registered to vote. Gene Young was a civil rights activist in Jackson, and just 13 years old when the bodies of Moore and Dee turned up in the Mississippi River.

Mr. GENE YOUNG (Civil Rights Activist): I remember reading a national account that some bodies had been found. I think we were all fearful.

LOHR: Young was working with CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, back then. And all eyes were on Mississippi, because three young voting-rights activists had disappeared in what became the famous "Mississippi Burning" case. The FBI was called in and hundreds of agents searched for the men. In doing so they discovered the bodies of Moore and Dee.

Klansmen had picked up the men in Meadville and taken them into the Homochitto National Forest. There they were severely beaten, dumped into the trunk of a car, driven across the state line to Louisiana, weighted down with an engine block and left to drown in the Mississippi River.

Mr. YOUNG: It was very tense. You know, white supremacy was the status quo in Mississippi and black people were relegated to a status just out of slavery, really, you know, and to some people that was just sport, to go out and harass and kill black people.

LOHR: The Klan made its presence known in Mississippi - firebombing homes and threatening anyone who spoke up against segregation and Jim Crow laws. The FBI did investigate the case surrounding the murders of Moore and Dee but left it to state officials to prosecute. James Ford Seale was arrested in November 1964. But the charges against him were eventually dropped and the murders largely forgotten.

Mr. THOMAS MOORE (Brother of Charles Eddie Moore): My family - there was no way we could forget it, but we didn't want to remember.

LOHR: Thomas Moore, the older brother of Charles Eddie Moore, told NPR that he and his family spent years searching for information about the murders.

Mr. MOORE: Mom went to the sheriff's department and he told her a lie and sent her over 150 miles away. We didn't have money to solicit help from attorneys or things like that. So the old saying is, we just had to eat it up. I've had nightmares throughout my life.

LOHR: The prosecution of a number of former Klansmen in reopened civil rights cases gave Moore and his family hope, including the convictions of Byron De La Beckwith for the assassination of Medgar Evers; Edgar Ray Killen in the "Mississippi Burning" case; and Tommy Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry for the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.

Doug Jones is a former U.S. attorney who prosecuted the Birmingham cases.

Mr. DOUG JONES (Former U.S. Attorney): You're going to see information from victims' families about what their loved ones were like, what was going on at the time in Mississippi, how this event came to be, and how the bodies were found.

LOHR: Seale says he's innocent. But there are questions about statements he made 43 years ago. FBI agents confronted Seale, saying they knew he committed the crime. Seale responded, yes, but I am not going to admit it. You are going to have to prove it.

Back in 2000, Seale spoke to Jerry Mitchell, a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger.

Mr. JERRY MITCHELL (Reporter): I asked him if he's concerned about the authorities looking at the case again, and he says they don't have any more than you've got - and that's nothing.

LOHR: It's not easy to try old civil rights cases like this one, because witnesses are dying. But Doug Jones in Birmingham says these cases are important.

Mr. JONES: The fact that Alabama and Mississippi and the other Deep South states have moved to a point where you can try these cases and seek justice even after so many years, I think speaks volumes of how far we've come as a society.

LOHR: That's a big change from the 1960s, when witnesses kept quiet and all-white juries rarely convicted anyone - no matter how good the evidence.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Jackson, Mississippi.

MONTAGNE: You can follow a timeline of the case against James Seale, browse FBI files and see video clips from a CBC documentary about the case at npr.org.

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