Civil Rights History Revisits Mississippi’s Troubled Past

Posted October 19, 2009 at 4:08pm

Author and lawyer Harry N. MacLean had Mississippi on his mind for at least a year, but it wasn’t until James Ford Seale was indicted in January 2007 that he got the framework he needed to write a story about the state.

“Mississippi fascinates me,— MacLean said in a phone interview. “What we see as a Third World country in our midst — there’s this universal perception of it as this horrible, racist, backward, hillbilly, poor place, and nobody ever goes there … and yet we have some of our greatest writers, some of our greatest poets, some of our greatest musicians [who] come from that same place.—

The title of MacLean’s new book, “The Past Is Never Dead: The Trial of James Ford Seale and Mississippi’s Struggle for Redemption,— is a nod to William Faulkner, one of Mississippi’s favorite sons, using a famous phrase from his book “Requiem for a Nun.—

“The Past Is Never Dead— explores Mississippi’s past while keeping an eye on its future. It’s impossible to write about the trial of James Ford Seale, the aging former leader of the local Ku Klux Klan accused of participating in the murder of two black teenagers, without considering the atmosphere in which he allegedly committed the crime.

“There could have been two defendants in the case: James Ford Seale and the state of Mississippi. Seale for kidnapping and murder and Mississippi for complicity — knowingly aiding and abetting, conspiring with, fathering, and furthering James Ford Seale,— MacLean wrote.

Along with other Klansmen, Seale was accused of the 1964 kidnappings of Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Moore, black 19-year-olds who were hitchhiking outside Roxie, Miss. The Klansmen took them into a national forest, tied them to trees and beat them. They then put them in the trunk of a car and drove them to the Old Mississippi River, where they tied the young men to Jeep engine blocks and dumped them, still alive, into the water.

Although the Klansmen were arrested for the murders, charges against them were dropped in the 1960s when the FBI turned the case over to local authorities, who said they did not have enough evidence on the crime.

By the time Seale was brought to trial in January 2007, though, a lot had changed. Seale was in line to be the eighth Klansman convicted of a racial murder in Mississippi.

Though many issues in the Magnolia State revolve around race, Mississippians today are open about their feelings on racial issues. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) recently signed a law that requires schools to teach about the civil rights movement. Seale’s friend and former Klansman Charles Marcus Edwards was granted immunity in order to tell the truth about what happened. Seale was ultimately convicted in June 2007, and even as his life runs out, he’s still appealing the verdict. Mississippi, on the other hand, is still on a mission to clear its conscience.

“Not long after Seale’s conviction, the Justice Department announced that it was taking a look at one hundred cold civil rights cases in the South, thirty of which are in Mississippi,— MacLean wrote in his epilogue. The woman who prosecuted Seale now leads the office at the Department of Justice that handles this initiative.

MacLean said that though he came to appreciate Mississippi, his goal was not to vindicate the state or its history. His book is insightful for anyone who wants a better understanding of the history of race relations in the South.

“The Past Is Never Dead— is MacLean’s third book. He considers Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood— his inspiration, and all three of his books are in the same true-crime vein. His first, “In Broad Daylight: A Murder in Skidmore, Missouri,— was an in-depth look at the murder of a serial killer in rural Missouri. He spent years in the town, becoming a familiar face to locals, and the book, a New York Times best-seller, was turned into a TV movie in 1991. His second book, “Once Upon a Time: A True Story of Memory, Murder and the Law,— was about a California housewife whose repressed memory of a childhood playmate’s murder led to her own father’s conviction.

The books make good use of MacLean’s professional background. He works now as a labor arbiter and mediator in Denver. He enjoyed creative writing in college but stepped back from it during law school and the early days of his career when he worked as general counsel for the Peace Corps.

MacLean says he also has high hopes for his next book, a more personal look at a year he spent undercover as a prison guard in Delaware.