Thursday, February 08, 2007


Is late better than never?

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.


Maggie said...

I was going to write an awful metaphor about the wheels of justice and the winds of change, but it came off sounding pretty bad.

It's important, I think, to learn from this history. I wasn't around in 1964, and I never lived in the south, but my parents taught in a segregated school in Virginia around the time that Kennedy was killed. They remember. It's hard for me to believe that we ever had the racism and sexism that were taken for granted and accepted as the norm in the 50's and 60's.

James and I were talking about this last night, and he could say this more articulately than I can. But atheists, or any group that is persecuted right now, need to do the same things that blacks and women did forty and fifty years ago. We need to change the social atmosphere that says that Christianity is the norm. People need to have the idea that a silent person might be an atheist, and you can't assume that they're Christian because of their silence. Older people will grumble about "being pc," maybe, when they can't just go up and ask another person what church they belong to. But our children will be amazed that we ever lived in a world where Christianity was assumed.

Susan Kuchinskas said...

I agree, Barry, that it's better late than never. Prosecuting this case and closing the books sends a message to everyone that what Seale did will not be tolerated. Period!

Dr. Momentum said...

Better late than never.

It is important to show that the bad old days are over, and that backsliding is not an option.

Indigo said...

As someone with a degree in criminal justice, I completely agree that late is better than never.

Thanks for the supportive comments today on the QOTD, they meant a lot.

Maggie said...

I'm sorry, I didn't realize when I commented that it was a question. It's definitely better late than never. I think the crime falls under the category of both hate crime and terrorism (maybe hate crime is terrorism), and should absolutely be prosecuted. I don't know if it would teach any kind of lesson to anybody, but clearly this man doesn't belong in society. I don't know if he's still capable of posing a physical threat, but his mere presence out of prison is a psychological and social threat.