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Excerpt: 'The Past is Never Dead'

The frail old man enters the courtroom not in an orange jumpsuit and shackles, as in days past, but in pressed slacks and a gray button-down dress shirt. He steadies himself on the lectern before sitting down at the defense table, where he receives a pleasant smile from his female attorney. The elegant and grandly elevated black judge directs the marshals to seat the jury. Eight whites and four blacks walk in and take their seats with great solemnity. On the screen in front of them, and right in the elderly man's face, the photos of two young black men flash. The audience waits with anticipation for the curtain to rise on the latest act in Mississippi's great morality play.

To date, each Klansman brought into court for long-past crimes against blacks in Mississippi has gone down and gone down hard: Byron De La Beckwith, convicted for the murder of Medgar Evers (third trial); James Caston, Charles Caston, and Hal Crimm, convicted of manslaughter in the murder of a one-armed sharecropper, Rainey Pool (first trial); Ernest Avants, convicted for the murder of Ben Chester White (second trial); Edgar Ray Killen, convicted of manslaughter in the deaths of Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney (second trial); Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers, convicted for the murder of Vernon Dahmer (second trial).

Now, here, today, May 31, 2007, the eighth defendant sits quietly, almost peacefully, in the dock. James Ford Seale, age seventy-one but looking well into his eighties, is on trial for the first time for the kidnapping and murder of two young black men in Franklin County, Mississippi, in the spring of 1964.

When the bottom half of Charles Moore's body was found hung up on a log by a fisherman in a back chute of the Mississippi River thirty miles north of Natchez on July 12, 1964, over 250 FBI agents were in Mississippi on J. Edgar Hoover's direct orders, scouring the countryside for Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney, the three civil rights workers who had disappeared after being released from jail in Neshoba County on June 21. The common belief was that the feds were there in force because two of the missing three were white men from New York. In fact, when the cops first recovered Moore's body, they got excited about the possibility that it could be one of the three civil rights workers — the M on the belt buckle might stand for Michael Schwerner — and quickly phoned the FBI and authorities in Neshoba County. Law enforcement and the national media hustled eagerly to the river, only to be disappointed when the body turned out to be one of the missing black youths from Franklin County.

Five months ago, Seale, a former crop duster, truck driver, and town cop, was living out his days peacefully in a motor home on his stepdaughter's property in Roxie, a small town in the heart of Southwest Mississippi. Then the feds swooped down in the middle of a winter night and cuffed him away. For years, the papers had reported him dead, and he's so ill now, he still might die an unconvicted man, like all of his alleged co-conspirators, except for one. Squirreled away in the historic Edison Walthal down the block is Charles Marcus Edwards, Seale's fellow Klansman, waiting to testify against him.

Nowhere is the power of the past to configure the present in Mississippi more evident than in this case. A diminutive black woman with streaks of gray in her hair glances at former FBI agent Jim Ingram in the back of the courtroom and whispers to the person seated next to her, "Oh, Lord, I remember him. FBI, we had to keep an eye on them too. I wouldn't trust him even now." Ingram, age seventy-five and a towering six feet, four inches, is a legend from the days of the great struggle. He greets many of the people entering the courtroom as old friends.

The woman, L. C. Dorsey — Dr. L. C. Dorsey now, although she seldom uses the title — shakes her head at how strange it still seems for the state to prosecute a Klansman for killing two black men. She remembers a far different time. When she was a girl on a plantation in the Delta, a black boy named Odell was known to have a crush on a white girl. One day he simply disappeared, and nobody ever said a word about it. Another time, rumors reached her father that a white woman in town had her eye on one of Dorsey's brothers. Her father, knowing the mere rumor put his son's life in jeopardy, stuck him on a bus to Detroit the very next morning. Back then, words or looks could get you killed.

Ingram remembers how things were back then as well.

The FBI was the law, the law was white, and white was dangerous. He worked most of the big cases, starting with Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney (known in Mississippi as the Neshoba County case or the case of the three civil rights workers, and frequently referred to in the national media as the Mississippi Burning case), and he helped convict Edgar Ray Killen in the Neshoba County murders and Sam Bowers, the head of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, in the murder of Vernon Dahmer, the head of the Hattiesburg NAACP who burned to death in 1966 when the Klan firebombed his home. Ingram went on to glory as the deputy director of the FBI and, after retiring from the bureau, became director of public safety for Mississippi. The state brought him out of retirement for the second prosecution of Killen in 2004, and now the feds have brought him back for Seale. Ingram sees a serious problem with this case; in all the other prosecutions, there was a previous trial transcript, but not here. Many of the witnesses are either dead or almost dead. The government has only one man: Charles Marcus Edwards.

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. The subtext in this play is almost more powerful than the story: Mississippi trying to claw its way out of the devil's pit in its drive for acceptance in the civilized world. Mississippi well knows the truth of itself: it is not only the Deep South, it is the Deepest South — home of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy; second state to join the Confederacy, last to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery (1995), and first to ratify the Eighteenth Amendment prohibiting liquor (1918); site of the highest number of reported lynchings in the Confederate states (539 from 1882 to 1966; Georgia was close behind, with 492). Even the other ten Confederate states look down on Mississippi, the unreconstructed, unrepentant, and unloved stepsibling. Mississippi knows that outside its borders there appears to be near unanimity that it is a lousy place. As New York Congressman Charlie Rangel famously put it, "Mississippi gets more federal money than it gives, but who would want to live in Mississippi anyway?"

It's not as if Mississippi doesn't already feel bad about the past or tries to justify or even explain it, at least not publicly. Mississippi wants out, and it wants in; it wants freedom. But the people here know there's no sense in changing things just to please others, like dropping the Stars and Bars from the state flag or abolishing the celebration of Confederate Decoration Day. Your past is your past, after all, just as you are who you are. One thing you can do, though, is prosecute race murderers from the sixties. Mississippi got the train rolling in 1994 with its successful prosecution of De La Beckwith, and in 2007 it leads with seven of the twenty-two convictions in the Confederate states to its credit.

The small man with the large forehead, sitting upright and unmoving at the defense table, is the latest stone on Mississippi's path to redemption. The path is fraught with perils for both sides, and both sides are acutely aware of them. The prosecution is worried about closet racists — those who have learned the correct language but still harbor the old sentiments. The prosecution is also worried about the native Mississippian who resents the way the world looks at the state, who takes the thin-lipped, squinty-eyed, down-in-the holler Hollywood image personally and doesn't want a thing to do with playing up to the hypocrites from the North.

For the defense, the worry is that regardless of the facts, Seale is destined to be the eighth straight sacrifice on the road to redemption. Who, black or white, wants to sit on the first jury in these recent cases to acquit a Klansman of killing a black? Some say that it might well be as impossible to acquit a white man of killing a black man today as it would have been to convict a white man of killing a black man forty-three years ago.

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Harry MacLean