On Morning Edition yesterday, NPR had an item about the upcoming trial of James Seale. In 1964, a search team in Mississippi that was looking for three missing civil rights activists found, accidentally, the bodies of two young black men. Charles Dee and Henry Moore had been beaten horribly, then chained to an engine block and sunk alive into a river. There's never been any apparent reason for the killings, apart from the fact that the two 19-year-olds were black, and in rural Mississippi in 1964.
Ku Klux Klan members Charles Edwards and James Seale were arrested, at the time, by the FBI, and admitted their involvement in the killing. But because it appeared to be a local issue, the FBI turned the case over to local authoities, who subsequently dismissed the charges and dropped the case. Such was the deep south in the mid-1960s.
A year earlier, a black church in Alabama was bombed on a Sunday morning, killing four young girls, and that case was also not prosecuted. But in 1976, Bob Eddy reopened it, and pursuaded the FBI to give him access to some of their files. At the time of the crimes, the FBI feared sharing their data with the local police and prosecutors, worried that informants and witnesses would be killed by Klan sympathizers in those departments.
Mr Eddy used the FBI records to figure out who the informants were, got more information from them and progressively more from the FBI, and essentially rebuilt the case, resulting in prosecutions, many years later.
In the Dee/Moore case as well, a champion emerged: Jerry Mitchell, a reporter for the Clarion Ledger. By pointing out that the beatings occurred within federal lands, he was able to re-engage the FBI. He also got an interview with James Seale, who, he says, felt safe and smug about the whole thing:
He was absolutely in no fear of ever being prosecuted. He made that abundantly clear. [Imitates Seale] “I ain't in jail, am I?” That was the attitude I saw in a number of the other guys, Klan guys that I went and talked to. “I know the prosector, and he's not gonna do anything, and....” You know.
Yes, we know, but thanks to Mr Mitchell and the others who've worked on the case, James Seale will now be prosecuted — he comes up for trial in April.
But is it too late? Civil rights organizer Hollis Watkins has this to say:
It's good that the wheel of justice is turning. But it's also unfortunate that it turns so slow.
Still, it seems to me that the reopening of this and other civil rights cases from those dark days show us a number of things that should make us feel good about what's happened in the last 40 years. Though Seale (who now denies the charges) is 71 now, and his admitted accomplice is dead, he's likely to finish his life in prison for the murders. That might not be the swift, severe justice that the young men who were brutally killed deserved, but it does say that this isn't 1964 any more. We do care about bringing these people to justice. We don't accept such behaviour — nor such thinking — any more.
Perhaps it's not so much “justice” at this point, but “healing”. James Seale is a festering wound, and we're finally able to dress the wound and make our way toward healing. And after more than 42 years, it's time. Yes, late... is better than never.