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Seale on Trial

The James Ford Seale trial has been underway since Monday. I've been following it closely but have not had the time to give it coverage on my blog. In any case my second hand coverage would not compare to what is available elsewhere. Matt Saldaña is doing great, detailed coverage at the Jackson Free Press, where he is blogging daily.

While I am mentioning the trial, I'd like to direct you to a couple of related items.


Last week, during the jury selection process, John Flemming published an interesting piece about James Ford Seale, Jr., the son of the defendant. Most of the article is about how Seale Jr. tried to protect his father from prosecution by telling people that he was dead. But check this out:

After The Los Angeles Times and the Clarion-Ledger reported that James Ford Seale was dead, Canadian film maker David Ridgen and Thomas Moore, the brother of Charles Moore, found him in July, 2005, near the little Mississippi town of Roxie. They had been alerted by Ronnie Harper, the local prosecutor in Natchez, that Seale was alive. They were skeptical until they actually saw him.

What's wrong with this picture?

The Dee-Moore case was re-opened in 2000 but closed in 2003 and then reopened again in 2005 when it was learned that Seale was not dead. But who informed Thomas Moore and David Ridgen that reports of Seale's death have been greatly exaggerated? Ronnie Harper, the local prosecutor in Natchez. Why didn't the local prosecutor inform the US Attorney that Seale is still alive? I might add that Natchez is in Adams County, the next county west of Franklin County, where Seale and his alleged victims are from. Seems like Seale's wellbeing and whereabouts were not such a big secret.


One person attending the Seale trial is Alvin Sykes, President of the Emmett Till Justice Campaign. I heard Sykes speak at the Crimes of the Civil Rights Era conference, and he was very impressive. The Atlanta Journal Constitution caught up with Sykes while he was in Jackson, at the James O. Eastland Courthouse.

The FBI has uncovered 51 more killings, and the Southern Poverty Law Center has a list of 127 race-related killings between 1954 and 1968.

It's in this atmosphere that Sykes has brokered meetings with people as various as U.S. senators, district attorneys and victims' relatives to seek long-delayed justice.

His behind-the-scenes maneuvering was key to the FBI's reinvestigation of the infamous 1955 murder of Emmett Till, a black Chicago teen brutally killed after he allegedly whistled at a white woman in Money, Miss. (Earlier this year, a Mississippi grand jury did not return an indictment in the case.)

Sykes also generated the idea for legislation now before Congress that grew out of the reopening of that now-52-year-old slaying. Commonly known as the Till Bill, and sponsored in the House of Representatives by Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), it would fund a separate unit in the Justice Department devoted to investigating civil rights-era crimes....

Sykes was born to a 14-year-old at a home for unwed mothers, then taken in by a single 48-year-old friend of the family in Kansas City, Mo. He was sickly, in and out of hospitals with epilepsy, and says around age 11 he was sexually abused by a couple that lived across the street.

His formal education was spotty -- he spent three years at Boys Town, the facility for at-risk kids in Omaha -- then left school for good at 16.

He lived briefly with his biological mother -- he thought for years she was a cousin -- but says she was an alcoholic and rarely employed. He ran into her years later when he was homeless. She lived at the same shelter.

But Sykes calls leaving school the start of his education. Working nights managing a band, he spent his days holed up in a library. "Education was important to me -- that's the reason I left school," he said. "The administration was more concerned with students getting a piece of paper than an education. So I started teaching myself."

He also sat in on trials, watching legal strategies, researching what he didn't understand. He became involved in a federal desegregation case with the Kansas City public schools and befriended a Justice Department official. "I learned about cases and the system and started applying it to real matters," he said.

Sykes' work as a victims' advocate became locally renowned after a string of Kansas City musicians were murdered in the late '70s and early '80s. When a white defendant was acquitted of beating a prominent black musician to death, Sykes went back to the library with the victim's wife. "It was like in the movies," he recalled. "We just kept opening books. Then 10 minutes before closing time, I found it."

Sykes unearthed an obscure federal statute that allowed the defendant to be prosecuted on a civil rights violation. He sent everything he found to Justice Department lawyer Richard Roberts, now a federal judge in Washington, who got an indictment. The defendant was convicted and received a life sentence.

"His seriousness of purpose was impressive," Roberts said. "It made answering his phone calls much more attractive."

(Read the rest.)


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