In 1964 Mississippi, civil rights activists were fighting to dismantle deeply entrenched legal segregation and racism and the defenders of segregation were fighting back. On April 24, the Ku Klux Klan flexed its muscles by setting 61 crosses on fire around the state. By the time summer was over, Klan members had burned 20 black churches to the ground. People disappeared, mostly African Americans, and Mississippi-based law enforcement was often complicit.
When three young activists—James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner—disappeared on June 21, the FBI began an intensive search for the young men. They found a lot more than they were looking for.
On July 12, a fisherman found a partially decomposed body along the Mississippi River south of Vicksburg. The next day, another body was found on Davis Island, about five miles downriver of Moore’s body. Authorities had trouble identifying the remains initially because they were just partial corpses—one was missing a head, while the other was missing the entire upper torso.
Authorities would eventually identify the two dead men as Charles Eddie Moore, a student at Alcorn State University, and his friend, Henry Hezekiah Dee. They were both nineteen years old.
After the bodies were discovered, the FBI investigated the case and collected hundreds of pages of evidence. Thanks to the help of an informant, they identified the likely suspects: James Ford Seale and Charles Edward. In November, the men were arrested for the murders, but just a couple of months later, the cases were dropped. For forty years, the murders of Henry Dee and Charles Moore were largely forgotten.
In 2005, Canadian journalist David Ridgen and Thomas Moore, the brother of Charles, went to Mississippi in search of answers. A lot of folks weren’t too keen on the idea of opening an old wound, but Moore and Ridgen pushed on. They poured through hundreds of pages of old FBI files and even confronted the two men who were arrested for the murders in 1964.
Because of the investigative work by Ridgen and Moore, the case was reopened in federal court. On June 14, 2007, a jury convicted 71-year-old James Ford Seale of kidnapping and conspiracy in the murders of Moore and Dee; he was sentenced to life in prison. Seale died four years later in the federal penitentiary at Terre Haute, Indiana.
Ridgen produced a documentary about the case (Mississippi Cold Case, released in 2007), but he also recently released a six-part Serial-esque podcast that goes deeper into the case and the efforts of Ridgen and Moore to hold the surviving murderers accountable. It’s a riveting story about a nearly impossible quest for justice and for closure that somehow manages to succeed. Download the podcast today and start listening.
The murders of Henry Moore and Charles Dee were part of the inspiration for the 1965 song In the Mississippi River by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Freedom Singers (led by Marshall Jones). Mavis Staples recorded a version of the song on her 2007 record We’ll Never Turn Back, which you can listen to below.
You can read a summary of the events of the summer of 1964 here.
©Dean Klinkenberg, 2017