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.