IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Peering into segregationist state of mind

James Ford Seale
James Ford Seale is escorted by a marshal to a prison van at the federal courthouse in Jackson, Miss., on Jan. 29. Seale, a reputed Ku Klux Klansman, faces kidnapping charges tied to the 1964 slayings of two black teenagers in Mississippi. He has pleaded not guilty to three charges of kidnapping and conspiracy. Rogelio V. Solis / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

James Ford Seale has remained publicly silent as he awaits trial next month on kidnapping and conspiracy charges in the 1964 deaths of two black teenagers. But four decades ago, he offered his white supremacist opinions freely, to anyone who would listen.

In a signed letter using racial epithets, he railed against the recently enacted Civil Rights Act and exhorted fellow white Mississippians to wage a holy war against integration.

The letter was published in the Advocate, a then-pro segregation newspaper in Meadville, on July 23, 1964, just 11 days after the bodies of Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Eddie Moore were pulled from the murky waters of the Mississippi River.

“The time has come,” Seale’s letter said, “for the Christian people of this nation to stand up and fight for what is right in the eyes of God and man and not what a few men in congress or the senate decided on under pressure from the niggers and communists.”

On April 2, Seale is scheduled to go on trial in the deaths of Dee and Moore. He is 71 years old, a former policeman and crop-duster who might have died without facing these charges, but for another old Klansman who agreed to testify against him.

Grim time capsule
U.S. Attorney Dunn Lampton could use the words of the letter against Seale. It “shows his state of mind. It shows lots of stuff,” he said.

Indeed, Seale’s letter is a time capsule filled with ideologies from a grim era.

“These people were religious fanatics,” said historian John Dittmer, a professor of history at DePauw University and author of “Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi.”

“Yes, they were racist, but they didn’t think of themselves as bad people. They thought of themselves as doing God’s will when they murdered people.”

This pair of 1964 Mississippi State Highway Patrol photos shows James Ford Seale, left, and Charles Marcus Edwards following their arrests in Mississippi for the killings of two young black men. James Ford Seale, of Roxie, Miss., a former Mississippi sheriff's deputy, was arrested Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2007, in the 1964 slayings of two black teenagers who were long believed to have been kidnapped and killed by the Ku Klux Klan. (AP Photo/Mississippi State Highway Patrol/Courtesy of David Ridgen)MISSISSIPPI STATE HIGHWAY PATROL

The letter, which ran on the back page of the Advocate, includes several passages from the Bible that Seale interprets to mean Christians should fight, to the death if necessary, to stop the mixing of races. It was a common theme for members of the Ku Klux Klan as the civil rights movement made Mississippi its primary target.

The letter contains themes similar to those expressed in an unsigned essay titled “A Plaintive Cry,” attributed to Seale by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee.

Repeated requests by The Associated Press for interviews with Seale or his defense team were not answered, so it is unclear whether Seale still holds the same opinions. But at the time, his thoughts on the issues of the day were clear.

“The so called Civil Rights Bill is nothing less than a giant step to communist dictatorship of America,” he wrote.

“Why should we the people of this country comply with this bill when the President of the U.S. can go against the constitution and laws of the U.S. that our forefathers wrote by sending troops to Arkansas and Miss., armed with bayonetts to force two coons into our schools.”

Seale was served a subpoena by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee at a meeting of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. The groups was headed by Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers, who would be prosecuted for violent acts against civil rights advocates.

Klan meetings conducted at the time were full of religious rhetoric, according to Charles Marsh, whose book “God’s Long Summer” chronicles the role of religion on both sides of the civil rights movement. Bowers thought of himself as a “warrior priest” and peppered recruiting fliers and speeches with religious references, March wrote.

One Klan poster cited in Marsh’s book declared: “Members are Christians who are anxious to preserve not only their souls for all Eternity, but who are MILITANTLY DETERMINED, God willing, to save their lives, and the Life of this Nation, in order that their descendants shall enjoy the same, full, God-given blessings of True Liberty that we have been permitted to enjoy up to now.”

J.K. Greer, a 74-year-old former Klansman who said he attended meetings with Seale’s brother and father, scoffed at the idea that the Bible teaches racial hatred.

“It’s got nothing to do with God, now. It was the people that said you wasn’t supposed to integrate, you wasn’t supposed to associate with these people,” he said. “Of course we know now that wasn’t right. But that’s the way people felt.”

Willing to kill
Greer called violent members of the Klan “crazy fools” who had their own ideas.

Using the Bible, Bowers was able to whip his disciples into enough of a frenzy that they were willing to kill for him, Marsh writes, adding that Bowers was believed to have orchestrated nine murders, 75 bombings at black churches and 300 more assaults and other violent acts in four years as leader of the White Knights, starting in 1964.

He is believed to have called for an attack on civil rights workers and others sympathetic to the movement the day after Seale and a handful of Klansmen allegedly abducted Dee and Moore, beat them, chained them to heavy metal objects and dumped them still alive into the Mississippi River.

Bowers was convicted nine years ago of conspiracy in the 1966 firebombing death of Hattiesburg NAACP activist Vernon Dahmer. Until his death in prison last November, Bowers remained adamant that God was on his side.

Seale, too, cast anti-integration as a moral cause in his 1964 letter: “The time is here and passing fast for the people of this great nation to fight and die for what is right. If you choose to live and die under communism dictatorship, may God have mercy on your souls.”

Striking a chord with the poor
Ideas pushed by Seale and Bowers struck a chord with the mostly poor, blue-collar membership of the Klan in the South, Greer said. To many Klansmen, a burgeoning black population seemed a threat on many levels. Many white Mississippians, still harboring resentment over the South’s treatment during and after the Civil War, saw the civil rights movement as another attack on their way of life.

“(T)hey want to eat in the white cafe, sleep in the white hotel or motel, swim in the white pool, go to the white church, go to the white school,” Seale wrote. “In short, they want to marry your white daughter, or live with her, the only thing they know.

“They don’t want equal rights, they want 100 percent integration.”

Greer said people like him and Seale were products of their place and time.

A matter of upbringing
“I was a Mississippi boy, and this makes a difference where you were raised, how you were raised and what your beliefs were,” Greer said. “You’ve got to consider that. I thought that of course all that was right, that these people were brought here out of the jungles and just didn’t deserve to be equal to us.”

Greer, who is now retired and lives in Natchez, left the Klan soon after the upheavals of 1964 and his father convinced him he’d chosen the wrong path. He said if men like Seale had lifted their voices, instead of their fists, they might have had some success in stalling the civil rights movement.

“You had too many idiots in the Klan,” he said. “There were some good people in the Klan, some people that maybe would have made a difference. At any rate, the Klan wouldn’t have been looked down on. But then you’ve got this wild bunch of crazy fools, and it don’t take but a few.”