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Unfinished Business

Victims of civil rights era crimes are finally getting justice through the persistence of relatives, journalists, and prosecutors

By bylShaila Dewan in Atlantaine


Charles Moore and Henry Dee were both 19 when they disappeared on the night of May 2, 1964. The two black teenagers, a college student and a sawmill worker, were hitchhiking along a Mississippi highway when two white men pulled over and offered them a ride.

Dee and Moore refused, fearing correctly that the men were from the Ku Klux Klan. Posing as law-enforcement officers, the men then demanded that they get in the car. They drove them to the nearby Homochitto National Forest, where several other Klansmen were waiting. The two men suspected Dee and Moore of being part of a rumored plot to stage an armed uprising.

After tying the youths to a tree and beating them unconscious, the men drove them to Louisiana, some 75 miles away. They bound Dee to a car engine and tied Moore to some iron weights. The teenagers were probably still alive when they were dumped into the Mississippi River.

Notorious Cases

During the early days of the civil rights movement, dozens of racially motivated killings took place, especially in the South. A few cases gained national attention. One of the most notorious was the 1964 murder of three young civil rights workers—James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner—portrayed decades later in the movie Mississippi Burning.

But for every infamous killing that tore at the South in the 1950s and 1960s, many others—like the case of Dee and Moore—were barely noted, much less investigated.

Cases like theirs often gain momentum only when the victims of the past find voices in the present—like those that recently helped arrest 71-year-old James F. Seale in connection with the murders of Moore and Dee. Rather than police officials, it has often been journalists and filmmakers who have combed through documents and tracked down witnesses, fueling some 15 years of successful prosecutions.

Now, however, with time running out as witnesses and suspects die, law-enforcement officials are taking a systematic approach to unsolved civil rights era crimes. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (F.B.I.) recently compiled a list of 51 victims in 39 cases, most of which were never investigated by the bureau.

The reopening of some high-profile cases in recent years has already led to convictions. In 2005, 80-year-old Edgar Ray Killen was sentenced to 60 years in prison for his role in the murders of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner. In 1994, Byron De La Beckwith was convicted for the 1963 murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers. And prosecutors are re-investigating the case of Emmett Till, a black teenager who was murdered in 1955 in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman.

In the case of Moore and Dee, the persistence of Moore's older brother Thomas, along with two journalists and a documentary filmmaker, led to Seale's arrest in January. Seale, who is being held without bail, faces federal kidnapping charges stemming from the murders. He was taken into custody in the southwestern Mississippi town of Roxie, not far from where Dee and Moore were seized.

Timing was crucial in the case: Dee and Moore's bodies were discovered in the summer of 1964, while a massive search was under way for the three civil rights workers in the Mississippi Burning case. Otherwise, the two teenagers' deaths might have been largely forgotten.

That July, a fisherman spotted Moore's partial remains in a Mississippi River backwater. Dee's body was found the next day. When Moore's remains were initially classified as those of a white male, investigators thought it might be one of the missing rights workers, two of whom were white. This generated a spurt of media coverage.

The media attention had two results, says David Ridgen, a Canadian producer who made a documentary about the case. It prompted the F.B.I. to investigate, and it ensured that there was enough in the historical record to arouse the curiosity, decades later, of scholars and reporters.

Countless other race killings, however, were minimally investigated or documented. In the late 1980s, when the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., was creating a memorial to 40 civil rights martyrs, most of whose cases remain unprosecuted, researchers found more than 80 victims who could not be included because not enough was known about the circumstances of their deaths.

"It was so frustrating and sad," says Sarah Bullard, the project's chief researcher. "If the information wasn't there I couldn't include them, no matter what I suspected or felt."

Scared Silent

Because local newspapers often ignored such killings, Bullard pored over microfilm of national newspapers and records compiled by the Tuskegee Institute, documents from the N.A.A.C.P. and other civil rights groups, and cartons of news clippings collected by a research group called the Southern Regional Council.

"There were activists who were trying to pay attention," Bullard says, "but at the same time there were African-American communities who knew that racist crimes amongst them were not going to be investigated or reported and made the choice not to seek justice because it would bring on further violence against them."

That may have been the case with Charles Moore's mother, Mazie, who made her older son Thomas promise not to avenge or seek justice for his brother's death.

Alvin Sykes, a civil rights advocate who has urged Congress to pass the Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, which would provide $11.5 million per year to investigate these cases, says part of that money would be used to encourage people who were once scared into silence to come forward. "We have absolutely no idea how many of them are out there," says Sykes.

Mazie Moore died in 1977, and in 1998 Thomas Moore decided to seek justice, contacting the local district attorney, who requested information from the F.B.I. and was told that no file on the case existed.

But in 2000, the persistence of Jerry Mitchell, a reporter at The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., prompted the F.B.I. to dig deeper, and a researcher at the bureau found the case file. Mitchell and Harry Phillips of ABC News obtained copies of the 687-page document. An F.B.I. investigation had led to the arrest in 1964 of a 29-year-old truck driver named James F. Seale. The charges were dropped, however, when the district attorney said he did not have enough evidence.

Phillips tracked down the F.B.I.'s principal informant and persuaded him to do an on-camera interview about the case. Mitchell reported that because the crime began in the federally owned Homochitto National Forest, federal prosecutors might have jurisdiction.

Reopening the Case

In 2005, Ridgen, the filmmaker, convinced Moore, who lives in Colorado, that they should make a trip to Mississippi.

They discovered that Seale was still living in Franklin County, Miss., not far from where the murders took place.

Then came a coincidence: Thomas Moore had served in the Army with Dunn Lampton, who became the U.S. Attorney in Jackson, Miss., in 2001. Moore and Ridgen persuaded Lampton to reopen the case, resulting in the arrest of Seale, who has pleaded not guilty.

"I've been crying," Moore told the Associated Press after Seale's arrest. "First time I've cried in about 50 years. It's not going to bring [my brother's] life back. But some way or another, I think he would be satisfied."