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Racial struggles in Mississippi

Harry MacLean's latest book, 'The Past Is Never Dead,' looks at the state's efforts to confront its history.

December 26, 2009|By Emily Wagster Pettus

Reporting from Jackson, Miss. — Harry MacLean was a daily spectator in 2007 when federal prosecutors put part of Mississippi's troubled racial past on trial in a Jackson courtroom.

A tall, lean figure with a notebook always at hand, the Denver lawyer recorded his impressions as reputed Ku Klux Klansman James Ford Seale was tried and convicted of kidnapping and conspiracy in the abductions and killings of two black teenagers in May 1964.

MacLean, the author of other true-life crime thrillers, now has a book, "The Past Is Never Dead: The Trial of James Ford Seale and Mississippi's Struggle for Redemption."

The book uses the Seale trial as its centerpiece, but it takes a broader look at how the state has dealt with its history of slavery and segregation. MacLean writes about how smaller communities are choosing to either confront or ignore the complexities of black and white relations.

His title comes from a quote by Nobel laureate William Faulkner, a Mississippian: "The past is not dead. In fact, it's not even past."

MacLean, 66, said recently that he had long wanted to write about Mississippi because it's widely seen as "the worst of the worst." The state often ranks as one of the unhealthiest and the least educated in the nation, and MacLean said many outsiders' impression still comes from the violent confrontations over civil rights in the 1960s.

"Nothing stays the way it was for 40 years," he said. "The mere fact that there was kind of a monolithic view of it was a challenge."

MacLean found a peg for a book when Seale was indicted in January 2007. It is among more than a dozen civil rights-era cold cases that state and federal prosecutors across the South have brought to trial since the 1990s. Seale was arrested on a state murder count in 1964, but the charge was later dropped. Federal prosecutors said that at the time Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Eddie Moore disappeared, local law enforcement officers were in collusion with the Klan.

Seale was indicted after Moore's brother, Thomas, of Colorado Springs, Colo., and a Canadian Broadcasting Corp. documentary maker, David Ridgen, uncovered evidence about the killings in 2005 and shared the information with prosecutors, 40 years after the decomposing bodies of the teens were dragged from a Mississippi River backwater.

Thomas Moore, who has a federal civil lawsuit pending against the Mississippi county where his brother was abducted, said he has not read MacLean's book.

Journalist Bill Minor, who has covered Mississippi for more than 60 years, said the slayings of Dee and Moore were overshadowed by the massive FBI search for Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman, the civil-rights workers who disappeared from Neshoba County in June 1964. According to law officers' testimony during the 2007 Seale trial, authorities initially thought they might have found the Neshoba victims when they found the remains of Dee and Moore about 120 miles away.

Minor said the slayings of Dee and Moore were "as heinous as any that was committed. It's typical of the many really overlooked, forgotten hate crimes against black people. It was part of the mania, I guess you'd say, that gripped the state at that time."

At the beginning of the 2007 trial, potential jurors were asked detailed questions about their backgrounds, including whether they or any of their relatives had ever belonged to the Klan. Several, black and white, were dismissed after saying that they couldn't set aside their thoughts that prosecuting a 43-year-old case was a good thing or a bad one.

"That's when I really realized that the conversation in Mississippi is different about race," MacLean said. "First of all, it's on the table in Mississippi. It's talked about."

A mixed-race jury convicted Seale, and U.S. District Judge Henry Wingate -- who happens to be Mississippi's only black federal judge -- sentenced him to the maximum of three life sentences. Seale, now 74, is in a federal prison in Indiana, and his conviction is under appeal.

MacLean received the Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime in 1989 for his first book, "In Broad Daylight," about the 1981 vigilante-style killing of a town bully in northwestern Missouri. His second book, "Once Upon a Time: A True Story of Memory, Murder and the Law," recounted the tale of a Northern California woman who in 1989 claimed to have recovered repressed memories about her father killing one of her friends two decades earlier.

Associated Press reporter Emily Wagster Pettus covered the 2007 trial of James Ford Seale.

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