Reflection

Ifetayo Belle

I will never forget the first time I heard about Henry Dee and Charles Moore.  It was the end of my first year of law school and I had recently switched internship rotations, which required me to find a summer position during the second to last week of school with finals a mere two weeks away.  Coming off the heels of an intellectually stimulating semester of Constitutional Law, I felt I was ready to dive into an internship that would allow me to learn more about civil rights law, the field I hoped to enter one day.  With this in mind, I stalked the halls of the law school in search of Professor Margaret Burnham knowing that she would be the best resource to find such a placement.  When I finally found her and explained my situation the first words out of her mouth were, “I have this great case, how do you feel about going to Mississippi.”   first, I didn’t know what to say, so I just listened as she explained to me what I later came to know as the Dee and Moore case.  She told me about two boys, not much younger than me, who were abducted while hitchhiking on the back roads of Mississippi in 1964.  She told me about how they were taken to a forest, tied to trees, whipped until they were bloody, thrown into the trunk of car and driven to the Mississippi River where they took their last breaths.  Then she told me that their perpetrators had only recently been brought to justice, but that during the course of the trial a witness told the court that the Sheriff and his deputies were all involved.  Finally, she told me she was going to bring justice to their families and I could help.  I told her to count me in.      A couple weeks later, my mother and I drove down to Jackson, Mississippi from Boston.  Having grown up in the 1960s, she couldn’t quite get her head around the idea that her eldest daughter, whom she had tried so hard to keep out of harm’s way, was voluntarily going to the Deep South to investigate a sheriff’s possible involvement with forty-year-old murders.  She wanted to see the place for herself before leaving me there as I embarked on my very own Freedom Summer of 2008.

As I settled in and my mother and her worrying eyes returned to Massachusetts, I began doing “the work,” as Professor Burnham called it.  My first assignment was to wade through boxes of old FBI documents from 1964 and to catalog the pages according to date in order to build a proper timeline for our complaint.  Our case was unique from those of other murders during the time period in that we had a decent FBI record to work with.  This was due to the fact that when Henry and Charles’ bodies were found, it was originally believed they were the bodies of the three missing civil rights workers, Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman.  Reading through the file not only gave me insight into our own case, but because it included so many other documents about victims of civil rights violence it also taught me the brutal history of the Civil Rights Movement, the one you don’t learn about in school.
Being in Jackson, the epicenter of such a historic time in our nation, also taught me valuable lessons about what people that look like me and those who simply needed to fight injustice alongside them, experienced during that period.  You could see the history around every corner.  And unfortunately, around every corner was a reminder of others lost, besides Henry and Charles, at the hands of hateful people who couldn’t bear to accept others that were different from them.  These gruesome reminders kept me going as I began learning the intricacies of §1983 law, researching statutes of limitations and pendant state claims.

In the middle of the summer, I met Thomas Moore.  Thomas is Charles’ older brother who could never seem to shake the fact that his only brother had been brutally tortured, murdered and disposed of in such a way that he would never be found.  When asked forty-six years later about why he never gave up on the case he simply responded, “If it was your brother, wouldn’t you want to know?”  Thomas, Thelma Collins (Henry’s sister) and I met for the first time at the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals hearing for the criminal trial of the case in New Orleans, Louisiana.  Shortly thereafter, we all drove to Philadelphia, Mississippi, where we rode in a caravan of ardent civil rights activists and supporters visiting the memorial sites of, Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman, the three slain civil rights workers.  The trip was particularly important for my education about the Dee and Moore case because it gave me a chance to have one-on-one time with the victims’ families and to talk with them about how they felt when their brothers went missing, and their heartbreak when they learned of their deaths.  As my first real “clients,” I felt a special bond with Thomas Moore and Thelma Collins and an even stronger desire to work hard to help them achieve a sense of peace by uncovering the full truth of what happened to their brothers.

Before the summer ended and I had to return to school, Professor Burnham wanted to make sure that everyone who interacted with the Sheriff’s Department had a chance to tell their story in the hopes that they would bolster our case.  True to form, as soon as her plane hit the ground, Professor Burnham jumped into the rental car, as I tried to keep up, and we drove to southwest Mississippi – the heart of Klan violence during the 60s.  I’d spent a good deal of my time traveling through the state for the case, but perhaps because of all of my recently amassed knowledge of the tragedies that had happened there, I was terrified to go by myself to interview witnesses before she arrived.  Professor Burnham was ready, and within a few hours we were interviewing witnesses, the extended family of Charles and Henry and others victimized by the very people charged with protecting them.

In the first interview, I was quiet, unsure if the questions I had were relevant to the theory of the case or would just highlight my inexperience.  But as I became more enthralled in the story of our first interviewee, I started asking questions without even realizing it.  As the words left my mouth, I looked over to Professor Burnham for a sign of whether to stop.  To my surprise she nodded for me press on.  And this was how I learned to interview witnesses.
In the end, our complaint developed into a strongly worded thirty-two page recitation of the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office failure to protect African-American residents from Klan violence, sometimes resulting in death.  Anecdotes from Thomas and Thelma learned on our long car rides made their way prominently into the complaint.  And as the statute of limitations deadline approached, the small Jackson office where I worked was overcome with a mania, and then calm when the complaint was filed with the court.

Soon afterwards I returned to Boston for the start of my second year of law school, committed to civil rights work and the promotion of racial justice in the law.  I stayed active in the case through my last year in law school and watched as it recently settled this past summer.  The experiences I had while doing the work in the Dee/Moore case truly fueled my desire to become a civil rights lawyer, the field in which I currently practice.  Had it not been for the invaluable time I spent in Jackson, Mississippi, I would not have anywhere near the level of expertise that I have gained.  Working on the Dee/Moore case was literally a life changing experience, and I know it has made me a better attorney as a result.

Reflections on the Dee and Moore Case
Tayo Belle
NUSL ’10