U.S. governor censored news release, photos in civil rights cold case
This story includes disturbing images
Documents obtained by CBC News show that the Mississippi governor at the time of the 1964 race killings of two African-American teenagers censored a news release related to the case and kept photos of their remains from the media at the height of the civil rights movement.
Paul B. Johnson Jr., who died last year,became governor of Mississippi in January 1964. The Democratic politician was known for his support of segregation, and had personally blocked the way of James Meredith, the first black student to register at the University of Mississippi, as Meredith tried to make his way on campus.
FBI documents show that Johnson personally influenced aspects of the Charles Moore and Henry Dee case.
Moore and Dee's case was dropped after local authorities refused to call a grand jury, despite an FBI investigation that resulted in the arrest of two men. The case was re-opened in 2000 after a flurry of media reports on it, but again, no charges were laid. According to the FBI, the case was officially closed again in June 2003.
The case was againre-opened in 2005, following the efforts of CBC documentary filmmaker David Ridgen and one of the victim's brothers, Thomas Moore. In 2007,during the production of Ridgen's documentary about the killings, James Ford Seale was indicted and arrested in connection with the case and now awaits trial on kidnapping charges.
Johnson ordered that all references to the Mississippi Highway Patrol’s involvement in the case be removed for fear he’d lose some of the special powers he’d gained as more civil rights cases began to pile up.
"Governor [Johnson] was most anxious that all mention of the Mississippi Highway Safety Patrol be omitted from the release in connection with the arrests of Seale and Edwards," one of the documents states.
The original release was scrapped and a new one drafted, mentioning that the FBI made the arrests in conjunction with "local authorities."
The news release describes Moore and Dee simply as "two Negroes from Meadville," while Seale and Edwards, arrested for their alleged parts in the murders, are described as army veterans with families and careers.
Johnson communicated withthe FBI on the evening ofJuly 13, 1964, to request that the photos not be made available to anyone, including the press and members of the public. Al Rosen, then the FBI's deputy chief, agreed.
Johnson appears to have taken the photographs for his own files. They can now be found in the former governor's collection of papers stored at the University of Southern Mississippi.
CBC News spoke with Rosen
Contacted shortly before his death in 2006, an ailing 100-year-old Rosen told CBC News he couldn't recall the photographs incident.
In the aftermath of the national outrage spurred by the 1955 lying-in-state photo of Emmett Till’s mutilated, river-rotted corpse, Johnson might have been worried the photos would further inflame the nation. The case of the missing civil rights workers, which later formed the plot of the film Mississippi Burning, was already creating an uproar at the time.
It is not known whether Johnson had any inkling that Moore and Dee had been murdered by white supremacists at the time he took the photos from the hospital.
When CBC News asked U.S. Attorney for Southern Mississippi Dunn Lampton if it was standard procedure for a governor to have autopsy pictures removed from hospital records, he replied, "Hell no!"
"Mississippi government at that time was a good-old-boy network, and the good old boys co-operated with each other," said Charles Sallis, ahistoryprofessor at the University of Mississippi.
"If they had to get around statutes or get around laws, they could just do that with a wink and a nod and say, 'Now, don't say anything to anybody about this.'"