Monday, September 26, 2005
Ghosts of Mississippi: Why would an entire town pretend that a man is dead? Racism is alive and well, and so apparently is James Ford Seale.
September 25, 2005
BY ALLEN G. BREED
ROXIE, Miss. -- Thomas Moore stopped at the gas station just outside of town for a country sausage and egg sandwich. He got much more than he'd bargained for.
Moore was back in the southern Mississippi timberlands of his youth to make a documentary about the 1964 kidnapping, torture and slaying of his brother and another black man, crimes for which no one was ever tried.
Idling in the store that blistering July day, Moore lamented to a local about the fact that one of the prime suspects had died, and the listener asked which one.
''James Ford Seale,'' Moore replied. The newspapers had said so. Seale's own son had confirmed it years ago.
The man looked at Moore in surprise. ''He ain't dead,'' he said. ''I'll show you where he lives.''
Moore and filmmaker David Ridgen drove a short distance to a spacious brick house with an immaculate lawn studded with pines and birdhouses. There, lounging beneath a covered picnic area, was an old man with white, thinning hair and spectacles.
Rumors of gunrunning
''James Ford Seale!'' Moore shouted from the road. ''Why don't you come out and talk to me? Don't be a coward like you were 41 years ago.''
The white man grabbed his cane, scurried to a motor home parked beside the swimming pool and shut the door behind him -- but not before Ridgen could zoom in on him with his camera.
This was no ghost of Mississippi. James Ford Seale was very much alive.
In July 1964, a fisherman found the lower part of a black man's body in the Mississippi River near Tallulah, La. The partial remains of a second man were found the next day.
The bodies were identified as those of Charles Eddie Moore, who was home from Alcorn A&M after being suspended for taking part in a protest over cafeteria food, and Henry Hezekiah Dee, who worked at a local lumberyard.
According to federal reports, the two 19-year-olds were hitchhiking May 2 on U.S. 84 outside nearby Meadville when a Klansman in a Volkswagen picked them up. The Klan had heard rumors of black Muslim gunrunning in the area and figured the two were involved.
Two men were arrested in the case -- paper mill worker Charles Marcus Edwards, 31, and his cousin, a 29-year-old truck driver named James Ford Seale.
'Have to prove it'
FBI documents say Edwards admitted he and Seale picked up the two men, took them to ''an undisclosed wooded area where they were 'whipped' '' -- allegedly with bean poles. But Edwards told investigators the two were alive when he left them. (He later denied making the statement.)
An informant, however, told the FBI the Klansmen took the unconscious black men to the river, lashed their bodies to a Jeep engine block and dumped them, still breathing, into the muddy water.
When asked if he knew why he had been arrested, Seale reportedly replied: ''Yes, but I'm not going to admit it. You are going to have to prove it.''
Spurred by Killen case
The FBI turned over Edwards' statement and other files to local authorities.
A justice of the peace promptly dismissed all charges without even presenting the case to a grand jury. It seemed the case would end there.
But in 2000, The Clarion-Ledger of Jackson uncovered documents indicating the killings -- or at least the beatings -- might have occurred in the Homochitto National Forest. Claiming jurisdiction, the Justice Department reopened the case.
It wasn't long after that when James Ford Seale ''died'' the first time.
The Los Angeles Times published a story in 2002 on the reopened case. The newspaper said Seale had passed away the previous year.
''He was a good man and a good father,'' the paper quoted James Seale Jr. as saying. ''I was a small kid when all that went on. But I think they made a mistake, the law did, by arresting them. . . . Whatever happened in Mississippi, they ought to let laying dogs lie.''
Fighting for years
Thomas Moore, a 62-year-old Vietnam veteran now living in Colorado Springs, Colo., had been fighting a low-intensity battle for years to have his brother's case reopened. But it wasn't until the recent manslaughter conviction of 80-year-old Edgar Ray Killen in the Neshoba County killings that things began heating up.
Killen was sentenced in June to 60 years in prison. Moore and Ridgen visited Philadelphia, Miss., in the aftermath of the case to commune with people there and to issue a call for justice in other unresolved cases of the era.
The next month, officials announced a local-state-federal partnership in the Dee-Moore case.
People around the area of Roxie, Miss., have no great desire to talk about Seale. One local official acknowledged seeing Seale at area churches, but didn't want to be quoted as debunking his untimely demise.
Deputy Town Clerk Betty Mann says she can understand why someone might pretend Seale was dead.
''Because they figured it was a dead case,'' she says. ''Why bring it back up?''
Thomas Moore doesn't see it that way.
''I'm not going to let it rest,'' Moore says. ''I will pursue it until I die.