JACKSON, Miss. — A reputed Ku Klux Klansman accused in the 1964 slayings of two black men pleaded not guilty Thursday, and in a measure of how things have changed across the South, the judge he stood before was a black woman.
With his wrists and ankles shackled, 71-year-old James Ford Seale repeatedly addressed the judge as “ma’am,” a social courtesy whites typically denied to blacks in Mississippi 43 years ago.
Seale was arrested Wednesday on federal charges of kidnapping and conspiracy. Prosecutors said Charles Eddie Moore and Henry Hezekiah Dee, both 19, were seized and beaten by Klansmen, then thrown into the Mississippi River to drown.
A second white man long suspected in the attack, reputed KKK member Charles Marcus Edwards, 72, has not been charged. People close to the investigation who spoke on condition of anonymity said Edwards was cooperating with authorities.
Seale and Edwards were arrested in the case in 1964. But the FBI — consumed by the search for three civil rights workers who had disappeared that same summer — turned the case over to local authorities, who promptly threw out all charges.
‘The system failed’
The Justice Department reopened the case in 2000. But it was not until a few years ago that authorities even realized Seale was still alive.
“Forty years ago, the system failed,” FBI Director Robert Mueller said in Washington. “We in the FBI have a responsibility to investigate these cold-case, civil rights-era murders where evidence still exists to bring both closure and justice to these cases that for many, remain unhealed wounds to this day.”
On Thursday, U.S. Magistrate Linda R. Anderson asked Seale whether he understood the charges, which carry up to life in prison.
“Yes, ma’am, I think so,” Seale said in a calm voice.
Seale was jailed for a bail hearing on Monday. His court-appointed attorneys said he is suffering from cancer. His trial is scheduled for April 2.
Indictment gives gruesome details
The indictment alleges that Klansmen took Moore and Dee to the Homochitto National Forest in southwestern Mississippi. Seale held a sawed-off shotgun on the men while other Klan members beat them with switches and tree branches, it said.
The teenagers were still alive when they were weighted down and dumped into the Mississippi River, the indictment said.Video: Arrest in civil rights cold case
The break in the 43-year-old case was largely the result of the dogged efforts of Moore’s older brother, who appeared along with U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales at a Washington news conference.
Red-eyed but strong-voiced, Thomas Moore said the case proved that cases of the civil rights era can still be solved.
“There can be justice — even 42 years later,” said Thomas Moore, 63, of Colorado Springs, Colo.
For victim's relative, arrest 'not enough'
Thelma Collins, Dee’s sister, told the gathering that she won’t be satisfied until the case is concluded. She said she cried when she heard about Seale’s arrest.
“I thank the Lord that I got to see it,” Collins said. “At my age — I’m 70 years old — I did get to see something good come of it.”
But, Collins added, “It’s not enough.”
The arrest marked the latest attempt by prosecutors in the South to close the books on crimes from the civil rights era that went unpunished. In recent years, authorities in Mississippi and Alabama won convictions in the 1963 assassination of NAACP activist Medgar Evers; the 1963 Birmingham, Ala., church bombing that killed four black girls; and the 1964 Philadelphia, Miss., slayings of three civil rights workers — the case that led to the discovery of Moore’s and Dee’s bodies.
Seale and Edwards are suspected of kidnapping the pair on May 2, 1964, in a Klan crackdown prompted by rumors that Black Muslims were planning an armed “insurrection” in rural Franklin County.
Discovery in 2005
For years, Seale’s family told reporters that he had died. But in 2005, Thomas Moore and a Canadian documentary filmmaker, David Ridgen, found Seale living a few miles from where the kidnapping took place.
An informant told the FBI that Seale’s brother and another Klansman took the unconscious men to the river, lashed their bodies to an engine block and some old railroad tracks, and dumped them from a boat.
The remains of Dee and Moore were discovered two months later near Tallulah, La., during a search of the eastern Louisiana swamps for three civil rights workers who had disappeared from Philadelphia, Miss.
The bodies of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were found in Mississippi a short time later. They were the victims in the more famous “Mississippi Burning” killings case.
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