Thomas Moore holds a photo of his dead brother, Charles. He worked with a filmmaker to find evidence to bring the case to court. Photo by David Ridgen.
Successful prosecutions of civil rights era cold cases are tackled as a team, as journalists, family survivors, and legal authorities unearth past crimes and push them in the direction of a just resolution. Yet the investigative process that leads to the courtroom can be for long stretches a solitary and exhausting effort that feels as cold and bleak as the case itself. At such moments, advancing the case requires the precision and subtlety of a battering ram.
This was my experience when for years I worked on the case of Henry H. Dee and Charles E. Moore, two 19-year-old black men whose bodies were found during the massive 1964 search in Mississippi for three missing civil rights workers. I spent long months gathering decades-old evidence, filming with the victim’s brother Thomas Moore and meeting with various officials—key among them the late United States Attorney Dunn Lampton—when I could convince them of the good reasons why they should keep penciling us into their busy schedules.
The horrendous particulars of the Dee and Moore case are now internationally known, in no small part because of my 2007 film “Mississippi Cold Case.” Before then, only a handful of reporters, including Anthony Marro, Stephanie Saul, Jerry Mitchell, and Connie Chung, had looked into the murders since 1964. Each added new information to the file but the case never reached a grand jury, let alone a courtroom. By 2007, the deaths of Dee and Moore, their lives, and their case had been largely forgotten once again.
Dee and Moore had been picked up while hitchhiking on May 2, 1964 in Meadville, Mississippi and driven into the Homochitto National Forest by five members of the Ku Klux Klan’s White Knights. They were beaten mercilessly and interrogated, then bound, rolled into a plastic tarp, and thrown into a car trunk by two Klansmen who had been called in to help. They were then driven to a remote lake in Louisiana. In the darkness, they were attached to a Jeep engine block, train wheels and rails, and dumped, alive, into the water.
The documentary filming and investigation into the case that Moore’s brother Thomas and I undertook played a seminal role in the successful prosecution of James Ford Seale on two counts of kidnapping and one count of conspiracy to kidnap two persons. The process of filming helped push the case forward, with the film itself and witnesses found during its production playing a part in courtroom proceedings. The superb prosecution team was led by Lampton and Paige Fitzgerald of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. Seale, who received three life sentences, died in early August while imprisoned at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana.
More important is the ongoing progress toward reconciliation between members of the victims’ families, Thomas Moore and Thelma Collins (nee Dee), and the only other perpetrator in the case who is still alive, Charles Marcus Edwards, the federal government’s star witness. Forgiving the man who conceived the kidnapping plan that led to your brother’s murder, the person who tortured and interrogated the men in their last hours of life simply because they were black, might seem impossible. But it is the only way that a meaningful and deep paradigm shift can evolve. Such reconciliation comes only after extensive truth telling. As Moore says, “The process of reconciling with Edwards freed me.”
Documentary filmmaker David Ridgen and Thomas Moore joined forces to seek justice in the 1964 kidnapping and murder of Moore’s brother, Charles. Photo by Michael Hannan.
Trust and Truth
Truth can be elusive with the passage of decades between the time of these murders and the beginning of our search for answers. Arriving at the truth also requires the building of relationships of trust. This can be tricky territory, at times, when there are those working for an arguably singular cause under the euphemistic banners of truth, justice and glory, while political currency, fame and yes, money (for some) are also part of the equation.
There is, of course, the coalition of forces that one must work, dance and contend with to move a case over the finish line. But in this mix of players there is always the risk that the case will be sidelined in a sea of mistrust, cynical bickering, credit-taking (and false reporting), and time-wasting handholding, all talk and no action.
To guard against such situations, Thomas Moore and I became an indivisible army of two on the Dee and Moore case. We created a critical mass of trust that carried and insulated us. We accepted offers of help when they came our way yet quickly moved past those who wouldn’t help or put roadblocks in our path. We preferred direct engagement. That meant knocking on doors, confronting people, dealing personally with the authorities. Doing so allowed us to use information we had gathered ourselves to leverage the case forward.
“The Bonds of Our Reporting: The Civil Rights Cold Case Project”
– David RidgenSimilar bonds of trust exist among a small group of journalists, born out of their work on civil rights cold case reporting. It is to them that I turned a few years ago in an attempt to find ways to nurture collaboration and companionship. Today our partnership has a name, the Civil Rights Cold Case Project, and a website. Based at the Center for Investigative Reporting, the project is coordinated by that nonprofit news site’s executive director Robert J. Rosenthal, and it partners with the Canadian company Paperny Films.
My greatest joy is found in filming the uncovering of truth as it happens. This means that at times I have to investigate and document simultaneously, developing and experiencing the story as I (preferably) work with family members to propel it forward. Some people devote their lives to collecting antiques, or rare books, or knives, coins or guns; working these cases is my obsession.
In 2004, I found out about the Dee and Moore case from an old 16-millimeter film made by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) in 1964. Fleeting shots of Dee’s body being taken from the river on July 12, 1964 intrigued me, mostly because of what I felt was missing from the narrative—a sense of who this man was and why his life ended this way. I wanted to tell Dee’s story—and eventually both victims’ stories. Being Canadian didn’t matter. I don’t have to be from Mississippi to make a difference there.
Finding a name in a document and matching it with a current address is a kind of mystical experience for me. Someone with information. Someone to talk with. And the locations of the murders carry their own resonance for me—each a forgotten ground zero. Federal Bureau of Investigation documents known as 302’s are a sweet find, but I’ll take photographs, local investigative files, unknown witnesses, recorded phone calls, and confrontations on doorsteps any day of the week.
With the help of a trusting cadre of family members and fellow investigators, there is little that can stand in the way of a relentless search. Recent developments in the Dee and Moore case include an out-of-court settlement for an undisclosed sum in a civil suit brought against Franklin County, Mississippi over the sheriff department’s involvement in obfuscating the murder. Importantly, new ground was broken in July in the process of reconciliation between Moore and Edwards, the Klan perpetrator. I was able to film those emotional moments and soon they will be broadcast on CBC as an update to “Mississippi Cold Case.” To do this, I returned to Mississippi once again with Moore. “The mission continues,” he loves to say. And so it does.
David Ridgen, an independent filmmaker living in Toronto, made the documentary “Return to Mississippi” for the CBC in 2004 about the then-possible trial of Edgar Ray Killen, the case portrayed in the film “Mississippi Burning.” From 2004 to 2007, he worked on his film “Mississippi Cold Case” for CBC about the Henry H. Dee and Charles E. Moore murders with Thomas Moore, the brother of one of the victims. He continues his documentary film work with reporters on civil rights era cold cases.