Wednesday, January 31, 2007
The headline in many news accounts screamed "1964 killings finally solved." The headline referred to the indictment of suspected Klansman James Ford Seale on federal kidnapping charges in the murder of Charles Moore and Henry Dee in Mississippi. The two young blacks were kidnapped, savagely beaten and dumped into a river in 1964 by suspected Klan killers.
But the headline was also terribly misleading. State and federal authorities long ago identified the probable killers of Moore and Dee. In my book, "Betrayed: The Presidential Failure to Protect Black Lives" (Westview Press), published in 1996, I meticulously detailed the particulars in the Moore and Dee case, including the involvement of Seale. I also named other suspected killers and called on federal officials to indict the men on kidnapping charges. I pointed out that Moore and Dee were abducted and taken to a national forest, where they were beaten and likely murdered. This gave the feds jurisdiction over the case, and indictments could and should have been sought then.
I also wrote that Moore and Dee were far from the only black victims of Klan violence at the time. Eight months before a fisherman found their bloated bodies, five other blacks were murdered in the same part of the state, and other blacks were beaten or driven from towns in the area on even the faintest suspicion of being involved in civil rights activities. Yet, state and federal authorities turned a blind eye to the murders and the beatings.
Now, thankfully, prosecutors are no longer ignoring these cases. The indictment of Seale seems proof that federal prosecutors and a new breed of younger, no-nonsense district attorneys in the South are determined to nail the perpetrators of old racial crimes. They have certainly scored some notable victories. State prosecutors in Mississippi convicted Byron de la Beckwith in 1994 for the 1963 murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers. They convicted former Klan Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers in 1998 for the 1965 firebomb murder of Mississippi NAACP official Vernon Dahmer, and prosecutors won the conviction of three Klansmen in the 1964 Birmingham church bombing. For years, the murdered men's relatives pressed prosecutors to bring charges against the killers.
But even as they bring some of the suspected killers such as Seale to trial, there are still many more racial murders that demand redress. The following are some of the more blatant racial murders in which the suspected killers may still be alive:
• 1959, Mack Charles Parker was seized from a Mississippi jail by a group of armed white men. Parker was accused of raping a white woman. Ten days later Parker's mutilated body was fished out of a river in Louisiana. Within three weeks of the killing, FBI agents identified his killers. They had solid evidence that the murderers had crossed state lines, and that law enforcement officers had conspired with the killers. No state or federal charges were ever brought.
• In 1961, a white Mississippi state representative murdered Herbert Lee, a NAACP worker, on an open highway during a traffic dispute. Lee was unarmed. No state or federal charges were ever brought.
• In 1965, Jimmy Lee Jackson, a black church deacon, was gunned down by an Alabama state trooper following a voting-rights protest march and rally in Marion, Ala. Eyewitnesses insisted that Jackson was unarmed and did not threaten the officer. No state or federal charges were ever brought.
Also, according to FBI reports, the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, a para-military terror squad in Mississippi, committed nine murders between 1960 and 1965. In nearly all cases, FBI agents quickly learned the identities of the suspected killers through Klan informants, or the men's own boasts of the killings. There was only a token effort made to bring them to justice. Federal prosecutors have, and in fact always have had, the legal weapons to indict the suspected killers. Two federal statutes have long been on the books that give the Justice Department the power to prosecute public officials and law enforcement officers who committed or conspired with others to commit acts of racial violence.
Moore, Dee and the other victims were not solely victims of Klan terrorists, hostile local sheriffs and state officials, but also of a racially indifferent federal government. Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson cautiously and reluctantly pushed the FBI to make arrests and the Justice Department to bring indictments in the murders of the three civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964, Army Major Lemeul Penn in Georgia in 1964, and civil-rights worker Viola Liuzzo in Alabama in 1965.
The indictment of Seale opens another window onto that ugly period in the South when blacks were murdered with the tacit approval of southern state officials and the cold-shoulder indifference of the federal government. Federal and state prosecutors now must move speedily to permanently close the book on all the old unsolved racial murders. Justice still demands it.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a political analyst and social-issues commentator, and the author of the book "The Emerging Black GOP Majority" (Middle Passage Press, September 2006).