The Past Is Never Dead: The Trial of James Ford Seale and Mississippi's Struggle for Redemption


On May 2, 1964, Klansman James Ford Seale picked up two black hitchhikers and drowned both young men in the Mississippi River. Seale spent more than forty years a free man, before finally facing trial in 2007. There could have been two defendants in the resulting case: James Ford Seale for kidnapping and murder, and the State of Mississippi for complicity—knowingly aiding, abetting, and creating men like Seale.

In The Past Is Never Dead, best-selling author Harry MacLean follows...

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On May 2, 1964, Klansman James Ford Seale picked up two black hitchhikers and drowned both young men in the Mississippi River. Seale spent more than forty years a free man, before finally facing trial in 2007. There could have been two defendants in the resulting case: James Ford Seale for kidnapping and murder, and the State of Mississippi for complicity—knowingly aiding, abetting, and creating men like Seale.

In The Past Is Never Dead, best-selling author Harry MacLean follows Seale’s trial, the legal difficulties of prosecuting kidnapping and murder charges decades after the fact, and the strain on a state contending with a past that can’t be forgiven. MacLean’s narrative is at once the account of a gripping legal battle and an acute meditation on the possibility of redemption.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
The Past Is Never Dead works both as a true crime potboiler and as a broader allegory of the South’s search for redemption.”

“From jury selection through the actual trial, MacLean offers a portrait of a state grappling with its past and anxious to remove its stigma.”
“With this book, Harry proves just how good he is as a lawyer and author…You will be riveted. Enough said.”

Jackson Free Press
“MacLean’s writing is unambiguous and clear, entertaining and fast-paced…The book is riveting.”

Denver Post
“[E]xtraordinary…What makes this book so profound are MacLean’s insights into how the trial reflects Mississippi’s social mores and internal conflict.”

Roll Call

“[I]nsightful for anyone who wants a better understanding of the history of race relations in the South.”

Stephen White, New York Times bestselling author of The Siege
“Harry MacLean proves it yet again: Take a simmering controversy, a tense courtroom, and a pressing need for social context, and America has no better literary guide than MacLean. In The Past is Never Dead, he focuses his considerable storytelling talent on Mississippi’s attempt to resurrect itself from the horrors of its segregationist past as James Ford Seale is brought to trial for his role in the deaths of Henry Dee and Charles Moore. MacLean brings the epic trial to life while he translates modern Mississippi’s struggles for transformation. A powerful, timely book about the misunderstood, modern South.”

Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

“Even decades after the Civil Rights Movement wrought real change throughout the United States, Mississippi remains ground zero for what can be called the ongoing drama of racial inequality. This is the ground Harry Maclean walks in this fierce, moving, and tremendously engaging book.”

Laurence Shames, author of Boss of Bosses and
Not Fade Away
“Fast-paced and tough-minded, The Past is Never Dead combines a taut and vivid courtroom drama with a passionate and cogent meditation on race, justice, and the awful burden of history.”

Publishers Weekly
In the summer of 1964, James Ford Seale and six fellow Klansmen tortured and drowned two black teenagers, Charles Moore and Henry Dee, in the Mississippi River. This study of the crime—which took 43 years to come to trial—and racism in Mississippi, past and present, is slightly hobbled by its sloppy structure. The book careens between the 1964 murder and the 2007 trial, but develops into a compelling courtroom drama. Despite a penchant for melodrama and hackneyed plot devices, lawyer MacLean (In Broad Daylight) recounts the story with momentum, clear legal explanations and stirring empathy for each character—from Charles Moore's grieving brother, Thomas, to Charles Edwards, a Klansman and the key to Seale's conviction. Most masterful is his treatment of Seale himself. Without ever telling the story from Seale's point of view, but instead describing how the defendant is seen through the eyes of others, MacLean accomplishes the tricky task of giving a monster pathos of his own. (Oct.)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465005048
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 9/22/2009
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Harry N. MacLean is a lawyer and writer. He has worked as a juvenile court magistrate, first assistant attorney general, associate professor of law, general counsel of the Peace Corps, and labor arbitrator. His first book, In Broad Daylight, won an Edgar Award for Best True Crime and was a New York Times bestseller. His second book, Once Upon a Time, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. He lives in Denver, Colorado.

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Sort by: Showing 1 – 4 of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Posted October 9, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    MacLean Unmasks American Soul

    In his third major work of non-fiction Harry MacLean once again reveals a major aspect of the American soul. The Past Is Never Dead investigates the black/white situation in the modern South through the prism of Mississippi's trial of a seventy year old white for the long ago murder of two black youths.

    In 1964 two young black men were kidnapped, tortured and drowned by seven white men. Six months later two of those men, James Ford Seale and Charles Marcus Edwards, were arrested, but shortly thereafter the charges were dropped. Over forty years later, spurred by an investigative segment of ABC's 20/20, charges were brought again, this time against James Seale, based on statements by Charles Edwards, and a trial followed. In The Past Is Never Dead Harry MacLean looks through the lens of this trial to examine the state of Mississippi itself, both the Mississippi of 1964 and Mississippi today, with particular emphasis on the relationship between blacks and whites. And he produces a remarkable book.

    What he gives us is the suspense of the courtroom:

    "A trial is a drama of competing stories of guilt and innocence played out before a chorus. In the end, the chorus decides which story is best and declares it to be the truth. So the lawyers are essentially storytellers....There are always subtexts in the play, the stories behind the story. You want the chorus -the jury- to identify with your story, so you look for a theme the jury can relate to....Here in the federal courtroom in Jackson, Mississippi, the driving story behind the story is redemption. Redemption not of a person but of a state, of a culture."

    And in The Past Is Never Dead MacLean gives us stories: the story of horrific violence done to the two young men, the story of many blacks who lived (and some who died) through these times; the story of contemporary blacks and whites determined to seek justice for this past crime, the contrast between Mississippi then and Mississippi now, a state seeking, through its redemption, to be a valid member of the New South, indeed a valid member of America, rather than its neglected, wayward stepson. This is the story of the maturing of a people and a state, and of the nature and extent of the healing between blacks and whites that has taken place.

    MacLean's prose is elegiac in its description of the landscape and the towns, and its many people, and we feel almost as if we are reading a novel that opens us more deeply to soul of its main characters. There is particular resonance in the depiction of the living relatives of the murdered young men, and their personal struggle for justice.

    As noted above this is MacLean's third major work of nonfiction. He has an uncanny eye for revealing important truths about America, and in revealing these truths in their multiplicity and depth. The subject of his first book, In Broad Daylight, was a small town in Missouri whose people came together to deal with a terrorizing local bully by conspiring in his murder and its coverup. In his second book, Once Upon A Time, MacLean uncovers the story of a young woman who twenty years after the fact remembers (perhaps falsely) her father murdering her childhood friend.

    All of MacLean's books are about how America exacts revenge for violence done, especially how a community takes its revenge. Each of these books reveals something quintessential about America, and in so doing MacLean unmasks bits of our soul.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 3, 2009

    Timely work of Introspection

    Harry MacLean has done it again, with this thorough work of Mississippi's ongoing attempt at redemption for its past sins. The U.S. Supreme Court just determined that it would not hear the case of James F. Seale, former Ku Klux Klan member who was convicted in 2007 of a kidnapping, and death, of two black boys in 1964. The Court was asked if the statute of limitations had passed, for a crime committed over 40 years ago. The case now returns to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Certainly this case will not die, nor will Mississippi's ongoing attempt to correct its evil past. Great read!

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  • Posted October 9, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Harry MacLean's "The Past Is Never Dead, The Trial Of James Ford Seale And Mississippi's Struggle For Redemption": The Gripping Narrative Of A Trial Occuring 43 Years After A Gruesome Crime In The Culturally Conflicted Mississippi Delta.

    On a May evening in 1964 in Franklin County, Mississippi, two local black teenagers were kidnapped and killed before the night was out. An indictment was brought by the federal government--but not until 2007--charging that James Ford Seale and other Ku Klux Klansmen had committed the crime. The defendant is one of only two alleged perpetrators still living. The other, Charles Edwards, whose role had been more peripheral, is granted immunity. He will be the chief witness for the prosecution.The crime was horrific. Allegedly, Henry Ezekiah Dee and Charles Eddie Moore were kidnapped by Seale and driven into a national forest; there to be joined by six more Klansmen. The prosecution claims that Dee and Moore were held at gunpoint, beaten and whipped ("spanking" in Klan parlance). Allegedly, the youths were placed in the trunk of a car with their mouths taped and driven by James Seale and another Klansman to the Mississippi River where Dee and Moore in turn were rowed out to deep water,tied to dead weights (for Dee, an engine block; for Moore, steel rails) and dropped alive over the gunnel to drown.MacLean's account of the trial is compelling and dramatic. It succeeds because the author weaves two themes of tension through his narrative.There is tension because of the personalities in the courtroom. Here sits defendant James Seale, now aged and seriously infirm, abandoned by his family save for his second wife's daily and loyal presence. Near Seale among the spectators is victim Charles Moore's older brother, now from Chicago, intently observing and wondering if at last justice for his brother will be done. And here will sit government witness, Charles Edwards, who was present when Dee and Moore were tortured in the forest.The verdict likely will depend on the jury's appraisal of Edwards' credibility. The Defense will aver that Edwards is a known liar and will testify to anything to escape punishment. The prosecution will seek to paint Edwards as one who has reformed himself; today he is a devout churchgoer, respected by all in his parish.The trial's second compelling theme is developed through the strategic joust between the women who are the lead attorneys regarding procedural and evidentary matters before the court. Rulings on concepts of hearsay, double hearsay and evidence that may or may not be prejudicial will be crucial in this case and MacLean, for over 40 years a member of the Colorado and federal bars, knows it. He lays out the rationale for these moves so the reader is in on the strategies before the issues arise in court.As his "In Broad Daylight" (winner of the 1989 Edgar for True Crime), MacLean has not researched his story at a lazy distance from the scene of the action. His conclusions about the motives of the people involved and the social and cultural forces that act upon them, are drawn from months of immersion among Mississippians. He has spoken with scores of ordinary people and intersticially, it seems to this reader, he respects their struggles and their efforts to come to terms with Mississippi's darker times. His account of the patience and courage of the biracial Emmitt Till Memorial Commission leaves one hopeful for the state. MacLean believes that harm has been done to Mississippi by pop culture stereotypes offered to the nation; particularly, writes MacLean, by material inaccuracies in the movie "Mississippi Burning."

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 3, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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