William Faulkner wrote: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
That argument gained credence when James Ford Seale was arrested more than 40 years after he and fellow Ku Klux Klan members tortured and murdered two young black men in Mississippi. The ghosts of his victims, and others who lost their lives during the long struggle for civil rights, seem eerily present in the courtroom during Seale’s murder trial, as chronicled in The Past is Never Dead: The Trial of James Ford Seale and Mississippi’s Struggle for Redemption. Author Harry N. MacLean’s main objective is to cover the trial in which a now aging and feeble Seale is accused of the 1964 killings of Charles Moore and Henry Dee. But the book’s broader theme concerns an underlying racial tension MacLean detects in Mississippi, and how the state’s white residents are still trying to atone for sins their ancestors committed against blacks. Thus, the steamy courtroom air seems thick with the spirits of hate-crime victims Medgar Evers, Emmett Till and other lost souls of the South.
Even while MacLean is covering Seale’s trail, he spends time traveling across Mississippi. His goal is to understand and describe the complex culture of the state. MacLean’s approach is effective when he recounts Mississippi’s struggle to recover from the Civil War, the rise of The Klan and the racial clashes during the 1960s. Equally engaging is his account of how Mississippi attempts to exorcise its demons, as when one small town tries to erect a memorial to Emmett Till. But the narrative loses its way when MacLean takes side trips to Faulkner’s hometown of Oxford, and later visits with an old black blues musician who admits he’s never heard of James Ford Seale. Fortunately, these distractions are short, and the drama of the murder trial is enough to keep the reader interested and the story moving forward.
In sum, The Past is Never Dead works both as a true crime potboiler and as a broader allegory of the South’s search for redemption.
John T. Slania is a journalism professor at Loyola University in Chicago.