The Future keeps arriving

I am really pleased that my most recent book got an excellent review from a renowned literary magazine, The Journal of African American History. Just when I think the publicity has died down, and the book is ready to fade, up it pops again. These journals only come out quarterly or yearly, so there’s a delay, but I’m appreciative and grateful. The book is also now up as a e-book.

The review is posted below.

I will be posting my second installment on the 30th Anniversary of the Killing of Ken McElroy this weekend. Stay tuned.

 

The Journal of African American History

March 22, 2011

Harry N. MacLean, The Past Is Never Dead: The Trial of James Ford Seale and Mississippi’s Struggle for Redemption. New York;
Book review

BYLINE: Williams, Michael V.
SECTION: Pg. 271(3) Vol. 96 No. 2 ISSN: 1548-1867
LENGTH: 1044 words

Basic Civitas Books, 2009Pp. 290. Cloth $25.95.

On 2 May 1964, nineteen-year-olds Charles Moore and Henry Dee were hitchhiking just outside of Meadville, heading to Roxie, Mississippi, when James Ford Seale offered them a ride. Instead of taking them to Roxie, Seale drove to a remote location where he and fellow Klansmen tortured both men before weighting them down and dumping them aliveinto the Mississippi River. The bodies, in advanced states of decomposition, were discovered in mid-July 1964. In The Past Is Never Dead, Harry MacLean provides a thorough examination of Mississippi’s turbulent past, focusing on this racial drama that culminates with Seale’s2007 indictment for conspiracy and kidnapping.

MacLean’s careful attention to detail is an overall strength of the book. He skillfully uses personal interviews, participant observations, archival materials, and newspaper accounts of the murders and subsequent trials to argue that the Dee and Moore lynchings were critical to statewide introspection. For MacLean, these two murders forced white Mississippians to confront the state’s atrocious past and helped instigate public dialogue conducive to improving race relations. In”Mississippi, everything is about race sooner or later,” MacLean argues, and the willingness of black and white Mississippians to discusspublicly racial issues proved crucial to Mississippi leaders’ battleto repair the state’s image.

The Past Is Never Dead provides a more humane, yet tragic, approach to understanding race relations in the 1960s and the oppressive nature of these interactions for African Americans. With vivid language, MacLean transports the reader back in time when “words or looks could get you killed.” Since the interrogation and killing of Moore and Dee allegedly revolved around white fears that African Americans were smuggling guns into the area, MacLean demonstrates the terror some whites felt regarding the growing black freedom struggle, a nationwide movement challenging white racist dogma and practices. The Past Is Never Dead, however, excels when highlighting the determination black and white Mississippians exhibited in 2007 in meting out punishment for past racial transgressions. Yet MacLean is quick to point out that murder, no matter how long ago, remains a stain on the state’s record that often clouds national recognition of the progress Mississippians have made.

MacLean argues that in 2007, 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 … conspiring with, fathering, and furthering James Ford Seale.” In many ways Seale’s trial served as another indicator that the state was desperately “trying to claw its way out of the devil’s pit in its drive for acceptance in the civilized world.” Much like district attorney Bobby DeLaughter’s Never Too Late: A Prosecutor’s Story of Justice in the Medgar Evers Case (2007), redemption proves the underlying motivation in this story as well. In his attempt to convict Byron de la Beckwith for the 1963 murder of civil rights leader Medgar Wiley Evers, DeLaughter believed that it “is never too late for that which is right, just, and brings honor to one’s home state, to the human race itself.” Much like DeLaughter, MacLean wants to cast a new light on Mississippi and readily admits that his goal is not “to present a new, complete picture of Mississippi as much as … to peel away the layers of perception and challenge the old images and stereotypes.” As a result, The Past Is Never Dead contrasts the negative images of Mississippi with ones that present the state as more progressive socially, economically, and politically than many had believed.

The story unfolds smoothly, as though told by a deft reporter present on the scene whose copious notes allow those not privy to the inner sanctum of the courtroom a play-by-play account of the proceedings. Although MacLean uses feature films such as Ghosts of Mississippi and Mississippi Burning to demonstrate the ways Hollywood helped form negative views of Mississippi, one also gets the sense of how important the media proved to be in bringing old civil rights murder cases to light. Jackson’s Clarion-Ledger reporter Jerry Mitchell’s articles had proven instrumental in redirecting attention to Byron de la Beckwith, leading to his conviction in 1994. Harry Phillips and Connie Chung’s television program 20/20 presented an expose of old civil rightscases that helped refocus the nation’s attention on Seale. The Past Is Never Dead demonstrates the diverse ways television has been used as the medium for Mississippians seeking redemption.

If “reconciliation” serves as a key word for MacLean, “forgiveness” completes his argument. Racial reconciliation stands as the lasting theme of the book. In the end, areas where civil rights tragedies occurred in Mississippi–Money with Emmett Till, Jackson with the Freedom Rides, and Franklin County with Moore and Dee–serve as testing grounds for attempts to address the past and initiate the healing process. MacLean underscores the delicate balance struck by white and black residents in addressing racial issues and gathering the energy and patience required to maintain a productive dialogue. In addition to the tragic murders, The Past Is Never Dead introduces a series of interesting minor characters such as bluesman Cadillac John and the ways in which race, sorrow, and oppression affected the lives of ordinary people.

Although MacLean provides an informative discussion, the book’s overall structure leaves something to be desired. The book is comprised of forty-seven chapters and an epilogue. Some of the two-to-three-page chapters proved frustrating, and MacLean’s constant shifts from 1964 to 2007, and from the Emmett Till memorial battle in Sumner, Mississippi, to the Seale trial in Franklin County, required a form of mental gymnastics that proved tiring at times. It would have also proven beneficial if MacLean had included a note on sources or a bibliography for those interested in further engaging the topic. However, these are only minor complaints that only diminish somewhat the important work MacLean has produced.

Michael V. Williams Mississippi State University

LOAD-DATE: July 22, 2011
ACC-NO: 261319720
DOCUMENT-TYPE: Book review; The Past is Never Dead: The Trial of James Ford Seale and Mississippi’s Struggle for Redemption (Nonfiction work) Book reviews
PUBLICATION-TYPE: Magazine
JOURNAL-CODE: 0OMB ASAP
Copyright 2011 Gale Group, Inc.
All Rights Reserved
ASAP
Copyright 2011 Association for the Study of African American Life and History, Inc.

 

 

13 thoughts on “The Future keeps arriving

  1. I was reading this book’s overview when the name Charlie Moore jumped out at me. Many years ago, I bought and recently re-read a book titled, “We Are Not Afraid—The Story of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney and the Civil Rights Campaign for Mississippi.” Seth Cagin and Phillip Dray are the authors. I recalled reading the section of the book where the authorities were searching for the three workers missing from Philadelphia, MS. Charlie Moore and Henry Dee were mentioned as two victims of the Klan whose bodies, among several others, were recovered as a result of the search. They were just names I happened to notice in passing, and I figured they were just two more sadly annonymous names among thousands over the decades whose case would never be solved and whose killers would never be brought to justice. Needless to say, I have this book on order also. If you keep writing books, I’ll be financing another vacation for you.

    Wanted to know about that novel you say you have pretty much finished. Is that one going to be based on your time as a prison guard in Delaware? Or are we talking about 2 separate books here?

    • One of the interesting discoveries I made during researching the book was that Mississippi Burning, the movie, was completely bogus. It keeps replaying on TV, and people think it represents Mississippi today. The story of Mississippi is much more complicated. The novel will be out next spring/summer. The prison book is on hold; I will probably rewrite it next summer.

      • You’re correct on bogus. I had bought “We Are Not Afraid” about a year before the movie came out, so I knew the story. My wife and I went to see it at the theater. Almost from the opening scene, it was Hollywood Crap. Gene Hackman later got taken to task by Julian Bond on some interview program over it. Hackman apologized; said he had no idea things in reality were that different. I never blamed Hackman; he was just acting out a script. On the other hand, I suppose he could have research the history first and turned the part down due to not wanting to be part of an inaccuracy.

        • Interesting. I never heard that part about Bond and Hackman, or that Hackman later apologized. He either won or was nominated for best actor for the role. I take the movie apart in my book; couldn’t let it pass. It was all about him screwing the local deputy’s wife and blacks being hung. I stopped reading books about Mississippi after a while. The story is too dark and too heavy, and I didn’t want to write another book like that. My goal was to shed a slightly different light on the subject.

  2. Due to your post above, I will now have to also order DeLaughter’s “Never Too Late” regarding Medgar Evers. I have more books on civil rights than I can recall, but a couple of my favorites you would probably like, if you’ve never read them, are “Warriors (Never? Don’t?) Cry”, by Melba Patillo Beals, one of the Little Rock Nine. Also, “Sons Of Mississippi” by Paul Hendrickson. Hendrickson based his book on his fascination with a photo taken by Life photographer Charles Moore. The photo showed seven Mississippi sheriffs gathered around a car admiring a billy club, and the setting was the Ole Miss campus unrest of ’62, when James Meredith was attempting to integrate the university. Who were these guys, why were they there, what were they probably feeling, what happened to them and their descendants. I’m certain you have heard of or read “Eyes On The Prize,” by Juan Williams, the book the PBS series was based on. I recently ordered a book I have been looking for for some time and finally found, called “Witness In Philadelphia,” by Florence Mars, She was one of only a small handful of people in Neshoba County who supported the 1964 Summer Project. She came from a prominent family in the area, which meant nothing to Sheriff Rainey and the Klan. They proceeded to harass and attempt to intimidate her; she was forced to give up a position teaching Sunday School at her church, was arrested by Rainey one night on a bogus charge, and due to a successful Klan-orchestrated boycott of her small stockyard, forced out of business there. I would appreciate you eventually taking the time to let me know of some good books you have read on the subject, Harry; chances are good I haven’t read everything you have.

    • I’ve read all of the books you you mentioned or at least skimmed through them. There are several new ones out now on the freedom rider movement, since its an anniversary. I know you know DeLaughter was convicted and went to jail. There is a great book on the big time Mississippi personal injury lawyer who went to jail for attempting to bribe a judge, also, but the name escapes me. Mississippi Mud is a good read.

  3. Thinking about your time as a prison guard reminds me—I have been through Smyrna, DE a few times, and went there for dinner once. When in the Navy, was stationed in Philadelphia for a year. Some guy on the ship had heard of a place called the Crab House? Shack? was located out in the country about 3 miles east of town toward the water. One evening, this guy and myself and a couple of others headed down there, about an hour’s drive. What I remember was they brought out these platters of what I would call mini-crabs, and if you worked hard for 20 minutes on several to extract the edible pieces, you had about 3 bites. Which were cool by then. But whatever, for $5 and all you could eat of these until you got frustrated with the process, it wasn’t a bad deal. And it was a chance to enjoy fellowship away from the ship for an evening, without having to go out and get tanked to do it. Was the place still there when you were?

  4. It just came to me today; I think the name of that crab place outside Smyrna was “The Boon Docks.” I also remembered they served their own house special alcohol concoction, called “Swamp Water,” a Gatorade colored drink in a Mason Jar. Remember the drink as kind of weak—they may have even used Gatorade as the mixer, for all I know—but it was probably just as well, since I was driving!

  5. I also know, in reality, I can’t finance any future trips for you by buying these books used. Didn’t find your blog in time to buy them while they were still in print. Sorry about that.

  6. In reference to my above post regarding the Bond-Hackman interview, Hackman apologized to Bond on the program, but I had the feeling it might have been because the confrontation was immediate, and maybe Hackman just wanted to avoid an argumentative conflict. I have no knowledge if he later recanted in public; I never heard of one. I watched the interview, but it was 25 years or so ago, so sorry, I can’t remember the name of the program or who the host was.

  7. When in doubt, try Google. The Bond-Hackman confrontation was on ABC Nightline in Jan ’89, with Forrest Sawyer in for Ted Koppel. Director Alan Parker was invited, but refused to appear. Bond had several beefs: The film’s plot did not reveal why the three civil rights workers were killed, the FBI were portrayed as aggressive, active heroes, (I remember that) blacks were shown as innocent victims with no input in their destiny. His overall point was that the film fictionalized what happened in the South during the civil rights battle. He was of the opinion that Martin Luther King probably would have hated the film, and said a better title for the movie would have been, “Rambo Meets The Klan.” Hackman said, “I would apologize for making people feel uncomfortable. But i still think it’s a good film.” Later, after more debate, he said, “I don’t feel the film needs defending. But I performed it to the best of my ability.”

    Whatever his feelings after this debate, they obviously didn’t stop him from accepting his Academy Award.

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