“The Past Is Never Dead works both as a true crime potboiler and as a broader allegory of the South’s search for redemption.”
THE TRIAL OF JAMES FORD SEALE AND MISSISSIPPI’S STRUGGLE FOR REDEMPTION
THE PAST IS NEVER DEAD
On May 2, 1964, Klansman James Ford Seale picked up two black hitchhikers and drowned both young men in the Mississippi River. Seale spent more than forty years a free man, before finally facing trial in 2007. There could have been two defendants in the resulting case: James Ford Seale for kidnapping and murder, and the State of Mississippi for complicity—knowingly aiding, abetting, and creating men like Seale.
In The Past Is Never Dead, best-selling author Harry MacLean follows Seale's trial, the legal difficulties of prosecuting kidnapping and murder charges decades after the fact, and the strain on a state contending with a past that can't be forgiven. MacLean's narrative is at once the account of a gripping legal battle and an acute meditation on the possibility of redemption.
BY HARRY N. MACLEAN
EDGAR AWARD WINNER & NEW YORK TIMES
Harry MacLean is an Edgar Award winning writer and lawyer living in Denver, Colorado, who writes true crime books.
“MacLean’s writing is unambiguous and clear, entertaining and fast-paced…The book is riveting.”
JACKSON FREE PRESS
Henry Ezekiah Dee
in high school
Charles Edie Moore
in high school
James Ford Seale at the time of his arrest in 1964 for the murders of Charles Moore and Henry Dee.
Charles Marcus Edwards at the time of his arrest in 1964 for the murders of Charles Moore and Henry Dee.
James Ford Seale in 2007 being led to a federal court in a bulletproof vest.
EXCERPT FROM The Past Is Never Dead:
Fitzgerald is first on stage. Dressed in a black suit with a modest string of pearls, thick ash-blonde hair perfectly coiffed, lips a bright red, she is the picture of professional elegance. She moves efficiently and seems well organized. She is courteous to everyone, flashes a wonderfully warm smile, and still projects a feeling of being slightly dangerous. She has a typed statement, and she glances at it as she paces. Finally, Judge Wingate nods, and the play begins.
Fitzgerald addresses the jurors. She beings where she must, with the crime itself. She tells a story the world does not know, and it horrifies even the most jaded. On May 2, 1964, Charles Moore stood on the bank of the Mississippi River and watched as James Ford Seale and Jack Seale chained Henry Dee to an engine block. Charles watched as the defendant and his brother took Henry to the boat and rowed out into the river; he watched as they rolled his friend, alive and breathing, over the edge, and he watched as they came back for him. The defendant and a third Klansman then chained Moore to rails, took him to the boat, rowed out in the water, and rolled him over the edge to join his friend at the bottom of the river. Unable all the while to cry out or struggle because this defendant, James Ford Seale, had taped his hands together and his mouth shut.
Nester is a dedicated liberal and former civil rights lawyer. She admits she doesn’t know what happened in Franklin County on May 2, 1964, but she is adamant that the government had no case against her client. If he were accused of anything other than being a Klansman who had kidnapped two black men, the government would never have brought the charges. It’s set up to be a Klan trial, a chance for the jury to renounce the hated Klan, to make someone—Seale—pay for the sins of the state, and to prove that they are not racists. The government wants Seale badly, but they’re going to have to come through her to get him.
To most Americans, Mississippi is a place with odd customs and traditions, a place stuck in the past, in the Mississippi Burning past, a culture frozen in amber, fiery crosses and all. Mississippi understands only too well that the past is never the past. (The most common misquotation of Faulkner’s pronouncement, “The Past is never dead. It’s not even past.”)
In fact, Mississippi is strikingly beautiful and incredibly diverse, a land of seashores and pine-covered hills, wide bayous and slow flowing rivers, and a road, seemingly endless alluvial plain bounded by a mighty river.
When you finally leave Mississippi, besides feeling a little sad, you realize the effect the place as had on you. The paradoxes, the inconsistencies, the ironies, and the contradictions have begun to seem strangely normal. You’ve come to see why giant such as William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Walker Percy, Shelby Foote, Richard Wright, Richard Ford, Tennessee Williams, and Willie Morris—not to mention Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, and B.B. King—have sprung from this tortured soil; you see that maybe it’s because of the need to reconcile suffering with kindness, inhumanity with compassion, ugliness with beauty, both within the land and within themselves, that they sprung from here. Faulkner, the great critic and participant in the Mississippi drama, is quoted as having said once in a drunken ramble, “If I have to choose between the United States and Mississippi, then I’ll choose Mississippi.”
Thomas Moore, older brother of Charles Moore, in 2007. He was determined to find justice for Charles and Henry.