League of the South Remembers the ‘Good Old Days’
Two months after reopening White's killing in late 1999, the FBI learned from The Clarion-Ledger that White's killing wasn't the only civil rights era slaying in which federal officials might have jurisdiction.
Agents then reopened the 1964 killings of Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Eddie Moore, who, like Ben Chester White, were apparently killed in the Homochitto National Forest.
The two, both 19-year-old former college students, were beaten by Klansmen near Meadville, Miss., and thrown into a river. Mississippi never prosecuted the case.
Nearly 1,000 pages of FBI documents detail the widespread fear in Meadville at the time — and the fact that the FBI had collected enough evidence for the case to be presented to a Mississippi grand jury. But it never was.
Two suspects were arrested in the case, James Ford Seale and Charles Marcus Edwards, but charges were soon dropped, despite the fact that documents show both admitted involvement. According to FBI documents obtained by The Clarion-Ledger, authorities in 1964 confronted Seale and told him they knew he and others took Dee and Moore "to some remote place and beat them to death.
You then transported and disposed of their bodies by dropping them in the Mississippi River. You didn't even give them a decent burial. We know you did it. You know you did. The Lord above knows you did it."
"Yes," Seale was quoted as replying, "but I'm not going to admit it. You are going to have to prove it." For his part, Edwards admitted beating Dee and Moore, but claimed they were alive when he left, FBI documents say.
"The Mississippi Highway Patrol did their jobs, and the FBI investigators did their jobs," said former FBI agent Jim Ingram of Jackson, who originally investigated the case. "The prosecutors walked right away from it."
At around the same time as the White case was reopened, one of the least anticipated investigations — the police department in Jackson, Miss., reexamining the May 12, 1967, killing of Ben Brown, who was shot in the back — also got rolling. What is so striking about that investigation is that two suspects in the case are former members of the very same Jackson police department.
Eliminating the Queen Bee
Also last year, Mississippi Atty. Gen. Mike Moore reopened the notorious June 21, 1964, killings of three civil rights workers — Michael Scwherner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney — after The Clarion-Ledger revealed the contents of a sealed interview. Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers had given the interview to a state archivist with the promise that it would remain secret until after his death.
In that interview, Bowers talked about the 1967 federal conspiracy trial in which he and six others were convicted, eight were acquitted and three received mistrials.
None of the men were ever tried for murder. "I was quite delighted to be convicted and have the main instigator of the entire affair walk out of the courtroom a free man," Bowers said. "Everybody — including the trial judge and the prosecutors and everybody else — knows that that happened."
Bowers didn't name the man who walked away, but in their confessions two participants name Edgar Ray Killen, known as "Preacher" Killen, and say he gave orders to Klansmen that night that included where to bury the bodies.
Killen denies any role in the killings.
But in an interview, he called Schwerner and Goodman "communists." And their killers? "I'm not going to say they were wrong."
One of the new witnesses is the same Bob Stringer who testified in Bowers' 1998 murder trial. In an interview, Stringer said he was at a meeting where Bowers gave the orders to kill Schwerner, known by the Klan as "Goatee" because of his beard.
"Goatee is like the queen bee in the beehive," Stringer says Bowers told Killen. "You eliminate the queen bee and all the workers go away."
'The Absolute Last Straw'
Perhaps the most heinous crime of the era came on Sept. 15, 1963, when Klan plotters blew up the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, killing Denise McNair, 11, and Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson, all 14.
The attack — in a city nicknamed "Bombingham" thanks to the frequency of Klan dynamite bombings — inspired outrage around the world and united the civil rights movement.
"It galvanized the nation because it showed the extent to which the white resistance would go to stop the movement — even to murdering children," says NAACP chairman Julian Bond. "Even though there had been other murders before, I think this was just the last straw, the absolute last straw."
In 1993, 16 years after Bob Chambliss was convicted in the case, the FBI began to reinvestigate the attack. Five years later, saying there was new evidence, officials presented the case to a federal grand jury in Birmingham.
Finally, on May 16 of this year, an Alabama grand jury indicted former Klansmen Thomas Blanton Jr., 61, of Birmingham, and Bobby Frank Cherry, 70, of Mabank, Texas, the only survivors among the four suspects the FBI had initially identified in the 1960s. A date for their trial has not yet been set.
New witnesses have come forward, including the ex-wife of Cherry, Willadean Brogdon, who told grand jurors she heard Cherry discuss the bombing. "Bob told me he didn't put the bomb together," she said. "He said, 'I lit it.'" In talks with her brother, Brogdon testified, "Bob would talk, and he'd get to crying and say he never intended to kill those girls. He said the only good thing about killing these girls was that they couldn't grow up to have more niggers."
Cherry's response is curt. "That's a lie," he says.
In an interview, Cherry told The Clarion-Ledger that on Sept. 14, 1963 — the night the bomb was planted — he was at the Modern Sign Co. in Birmingham, a few blocks from the church. "I know I left up there about a quarter 'til 10 because I was heading home to watch wrestling," he said.
And to back up his story, Cherry showed a reporter an affidavit from a friend, Flora Thomas, who swore Cherry "was at home at 10 o'clock Saturday night because he never missed wrestling on TV."
The problem with that alibi?
There was no wrestling on TV. Records show no wrestling appeared on television on Sept. 14, 1963. Instead, it was "Route 66" and "Films of the Fifties." "There was no damn 'Films of the Fifties' on," Cherry said after being told of the discrepancy. "Son of a bitch, something's wrong. Wrestling was on."
Shortly after the bombing, the FBI gave Cherry a lie detector test that concluded he showed "evidence of deception" when asked if he was present when the bombing was planned and showed reaction to the question, "Did you bomb the 16th Street Baptist Church?" But Cherry says the FBI examiner bumped the needle so it would appear that Cherry was lying.
"It might have been a gas leak," Cherry said of the bombing. "They had a nigger janitor. He died right after that."
Truth and Memory
These cases were not merely the criminal acts of a handful of psychopaths, examples of extreme violence wrought by the deranged. They were, in a very real sense, expressions of organized white supremacy — part and parcel of a terrorist apparatus meant to maintain the American South's apartheid.
They were to a large extent inspired and justified by such men as George Wallace, people who helped unleash the passions of the mob across the South. Ultimately, they were an all but inevitable product of a system that denies rights to a whole class of citizens.
But that's not the way neo-Confederates see it. Like deniers of the Holocaust, these white men are determined to see the old South through a lens of their very own making — a lens that grotesquely distorts truth and memory.
"Segregation," the League of the South's William Cawthon writes in an article typical of neo-Confederate revisionism, "is not evil or wrong. It is simply a policy to promote the integrity of a group. That there were some injustices in the segregation as practiced in the South I do not deny. ... [But] the segregated society of the South was far, far more moral than is modern American society."