On May 2, 1964 James Seale, a known member of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, and others, offered a ride to Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Eddie Moore, hitchhikers on their way home from a party. Seale, in concert with others carried the young men into the woods for questioning regarding their believed participation in the Civil Rights Movement.
Dee and Moore were then beaten almost beyond recognition and their bodies were bound with duct tape. While the youngsters were still alive, Seale and others weighted them down with an engine block and railroad nails, and dumped them into the Mississippi River. Their decomposed bodies were recovered two months later from the swamps when FBI agents were investigating the mysterious disappearance of three other Civil Rights workers (CBS News, 2007).
As the era of Civil Rights (1955-1968) ended, public concern regarding unexplained absences and unsolved murders of so many young men and women, black and white faded. Community activists joined in celebration of landmark legislation such as the Voting Rights Act (1965) even as the nation mourned the deaths of John F. Kennedy (1963) and Martin Luther King in 1968.
Then, forty years later, in 2005, Thomas Moore, brother of murdered Charles Moore, met David Rigden, a Canadian documentary filmmaker who was at the time working on a segment called “Mississippi Cold Cases.” Their work along with that of the local FBI, civil and religious groups, and local media, resulted in the sentencing of Seale to three life terms for kidnapping and conspiracy in 2007.
It is important to note that some of the earliest groundwork in the Seale case commenced with literary and academic scholars. Don Whitehead in his Attack on Terror: The FBI Against the KKK in Mississippi (1970), and Earl O. Hutchinson’s Betrayed: A History of Presidential Failure to Protect Black Lives (1996) placed these unsolved, “cold cases” on the front burner. Hutchinson laid out the details of the case, named Seale as the perpetrator, and urged the Federal Bureau of Investigation to charge him with kidnapping. He argued that since the actual crime had occurred in the HomoChitto National Forest, a national park and federal property located between Meadville and Natchez, Mississippi, the government was legally required to take action.
The Seale case highlights one of the dominant themes in American History: paradox and contradiction. Even as a segment of the nation was pursuing Civil Rights, another segment was viciously intent upon undermining any national attempt at human rights even if it required the death of the innocent. Such acts of extralegal violence are rarely accomplished by a single individual. These types of collective acts involve covert and overt acceptance by a community that feels threatened by outside forces such as young black men believed to have been acting on behalf of the federal government.
It is rather ironic that in the midst of multiple unexplained murders, this nation also experienced landmark strides towards justice from Brown vs. The Board of Education (1954) to the Civil Rights Act of (1968). History by definition is repetitive and complicated. Human beings have the capacity and power to avoid the ugliness of the past.
Perhaps the Cold Case Initiative can be a catalyst for lasting social change and real protection under the Constitution. As the American public braces itself for another US Court of Appeals ruling in the Seale case, the families of the victims anxiously await a ruling. Their efforts remind us of how far the nation has come and how much more work remains to be done. Perhaps the families of both perpetrators and victims can begin to rest in peace.
CBS News. (2007, January 25). Mississippi Cold Case Suspect Pleads Not Guilty.
Federal Bureau of Investigation. (2009, February 26). Headline Archives. Cold Case Initiative: Seeking Information on More than 100 Civil Rights- Era Murders.