Ex-minister testifies he saw reputed Klansman saw off a shotgun

Published 3:58 pm Friday, June 8, 2007

A reputed Klansman on trial in the deadly attacks on two black teenagers went to his minister’s home in 1963, sawed off a shotgun and grinned while saying it was to protect his own family, the former minister testified Thursday.

Robert W. Middleton testified that defendant James Ford Seale also asked him that day: “What do you think would happen if I just walked into a nigger juke joint and started shooting?”

Middleton said he replied that Seale would probably end up in prison.

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Seale, 71, is being tried on federal kidnapping and conspiracy charges tied to the attacks on the two 19-year-olds in May 1964 in southwest Mississippi.

Another witness testified this week that Seale pointed a sawed-off shotgun at Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Eddie Moore during the attacks in the Homochitto National Forest.

The decomposing partial corpses of Dee and Moore, mostly just skeletal remains, were pulled from a Mississippi River backwater more than two months later and more than 70 miles away.

Middleton testified Thursday that in April 1963 he was a financially struggling young man and that Seale was a close friend who helped him get a job as minister of the church Seale attended in rural Franklin County.

Middleton, now 77, said that in 1963, people in the 60- to 70-member all-white congregation of Bunkley Baptist Church were upset because the federal government was talking about racially integrating the schools.

“Everybody was going crazy,” he said as Seale stared, stone-faced, from across the courtroom.

Middleton testified that during an adult Sunday school class one weekend in 1963, white women talked about being followed by black people. One man, Archie Prather, volunteered to shoot at any blacks who caused trouble. Middleton said that at the time he was living rent-free in a home owned by Prather, who has since died.

Middleton said that during the class and during his sermon that day, he spoke against what Prather had told the women.

“I said a church is no place to talk about killing people,” testified Middleton, adding that he didn’t support integration at the time but thought it was inevitable.

Prather quit the church, Middleton said, and some time after that Sunday, Seale brought a letter from him saying the preacher would have to start paying $25 for monthly rent.

Seale had helped compose the letter because Prather couldn’t read or write well, Middleton said.

Middleton said that he also was told to turn off floodlights he had installed so young people could play volleyball on the Prather land, and that he was told to ignore vehicles that would come and go for meetings of a “gun and rod club” that Seale and Prather were in.

“They didn’t want me minding their business,” Middleton said.

As he testified, jurors and spectators were shown a color photo of a man in a red Klan robe. Middleton identified the man as Seale’s brother, Jack Seale.

Middleton — who moved to Mountain Home, Ark., about a decade ago after retiring from a 17-year career in Louisiana law enforcement — testified that he stayed at Bunkley Baptist until November 1963. Because of threats, he filed a restraining order against James Ford Seale in 1963 in nearby Adams County, he said.

Don Irby, a former friend of the defendant’s son, testified Thursday that during deer hunting trips two decades ago, he heard Seale bragging about being in the Klan. Seale also told the hunters that he was a Franklin County constable and had a “license to kill,” Irby said.

Defense attorney George Lucas said Seale was never a constable. Lucas asked Irby whether conversations at deer camp were sometimes “B.S.”

“I don’t know what that means,” said Irby, a mechanic who noted that his friendship with James Ford Seale Jr. ended 16 or 17 years ago after an argument at work about a gallon of antifreeze.

Linda Luallen, the ex-wife of James Ford Seale Jr., testified that she had seen her former father-in-law’s Klan robe and his home movies of Klan rallies.

Though Seale has denied involvement with the Klan, confessed Klansman Charles Marcus Edwards testified Tuesday that he and Seale belonged to the same chapter, or “klavern.” Edwards, a cousin of Seale’s who was granted immunity from prosecution, testified that Prather also was in the klavern, led by Seale’s father.

Edwards testified that Klansmen were chasing rumors about black people stockpiling guns for an uprising in May 1964. He said Seale abducted Dee and Moore and pointed the gun at them while other Klan members beat them.

Dr. Steven Hayne, currently the chief state pathologist in Mississippi, testified Thursday that he believed Dee and Moore probably died by drowning, based on reports from the autopsies another physician performed after partial skeletons were discovered in July 1964. Hayne said it was his “unequivocal” opinion that the deaths were homicides because the young men’s feet were wrapped by twine.

Moore’s skull was recovered by Navy divers in October 1964, according to other testimony this week. The autopsy reports say Moore’s body parts found in July 1964 were identified by a belt buckle with the initial “M,” and Dee’s remains were identified by a draft registration card found in his submerged wallet.

Testimony is scheduled to resume at 2 p.m. Friday.