It is with great pride and gratitude that I reflect back on the past two years and my work with Professor Margaret Burnham on the Dee/Moore case. My work on the case began when I was a student, a 3L applying to be a research assistant for my once feared Constitutional Law professor. I began working in the Fall of 2008, and was quickly energized and enthusiastic about the work of the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project (“CRRJ”). Professor Burnham introduced her research assistants to the case of Charles Eddie Moore and Henry Dee: two young Black men, walking along the streets in Franklin County, Mississippi, picked up by Klan members, tortured and killed in the most brutal way. Thomas Moore and Thelma Collin, the surviving members of their family, were suing Franklin County for their alleged involvement in the murders.
The murders occurred at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, and the beginning of Freedom Summer in Mississippi. Growing up, I only heard the stories about Emmet Till and others who were brutally killed for supposedly whistling or winking at a white woman, or for taking a supervisory job that was for “whites only.” I heard stories of my own family members who had undergone the same experience. My grandfather for example, was smuggled to New Jersey from Alabama in a hearse to escape members of the Ku Klux Klan (“KKK”). It was not until a few months ago that I learned he could not even attend his own mother’s funeral because of fear the KKK would be waiting for him to return to the state.
My work with the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project, particularly on the Dee/Moore litigation, was the first work I participated in where I felt the work was part of my own history, and something that I was meant to do. As a Northeastern Law student, I saw many of my fellow classmates involved in causes about which they were passionate. It was not until I began participating in the work of CRRJ that I felt the same passion that I had seen among my classmates.
In the fall of 2008, I began work on various research issues. I started to learn about the facts of the case. The complaint was drafted by my fellow law student, Tayo Belle, and Professor Burnham, and filed in August, 2008. Professor Burnham had her research assistants begin preparing for the next stage of the litigation, fighting against Franklin County’s Motion to Dismiss the Complaint. We also had a large legal issue to brief that might become the turning point of the case: could the plaintiffs, in 2008, sue a county for an incident which occurred in 1964, when in 1964 counties could not legally be sued. The analysis is a little more complicated, but this issue was a major legal question that could have struck down the case altogether.
In the spring of 2009, I continued to research the legal questions surrounding the case, including whether the statute of limitations should be tolled for the alleged fraudulent concealment by Mississippi County public officials. The plaintiffs alleged that the county knew about the murders of Dee and Moore, and not only was complicit in their murders, but could have prevented the deaths of the two young men. After Dee and Moore were picked up by members of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan (“WKKKK”), they were brought to the Homochitto Forest where they were tortured and beaten with whips. The WKKKK members interrogated Dee and Moore and wanted to know where guns were hidden in the county. There was widespread fear that the Black Panthers, or other Black militants, were plotting some type of resistance. The young men were forced into telling the WKKKK members that there were guns in the church of Reverend Clyde Briggs. The WKKKK members then stopped beating Dee and Moore, and went to the Sheriff’s office to get his assistance in finding Reverend Briggs. The plaintiffs alleged that at this point in time,the Sheriff and the Franklin County law enforcement must have received information about how the WKKKK members had learned about the hidden guns. At this point, the lives of Dee and Moore could have been spared. The plaintiffs alleged that after Dee and Moore went missing, the public officials concealed the truth from the FBI and the Dee and Moore family members for forty years. It was not until one of the members of the group of assailants was prosecuted by the Justice Department, that the plaintiffs became aware of the county’s involvement.
During the Spring 2009 semester, I was tasked with helping Professor Burnham find legal research to support her arguments filed in the Plaintiff’s Opposition to Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss. As a 3L, I had already completed 3 coops. I was given legal research assignments, but was never able to really see how my work fit into ongoing litigation. My research for Professor Burnham made it into the Opposition to Defendant’s Motion. Professor Burnham also allowed me to travel with her to Natchez, Mississippi to hear oral arguments on the Motion to Dismiss. This was a big trip for me, as I had never been to the south. My mother, who grew up in the south, expressed some concern about my travels. Professor Burnham was amused by this; she knew there was nothing to fear.
In April 2009, we flew down to Jackson, Mississippi. I remember the morning of oral argument. I was very nervous, even though I was only there to observe. I remember Professor Burnham showed not even an ounce of nervousness, as though she had done this a million times before. Over breakfast, she said that the she believed in the argument, and the law, and that the facts were in our favor. I echoed that sentiment. We made the two hour drive to the federal court house with former co-counsel Dennis Sweet. The Defendants arrived with their lead counsel, Michael Wolf and co-counsel. They brought along George Collins, a Black member of the Franklin County Board of Supervisors. We concluded that was no accident.
Wolf began his arguments before Judge Bramlette. I took copious notes, and waited on eggshells to hear his argument about the major legal issue in our case. He gave it limited treatment, which surprised me. The crux of the Defendant’s argument was that the family members should have tried to find out the truth about alleged county involvement, and that the statute of limitations had run on their claim because they failed to do so. Then it was Professor Burnham’s turn. She strolled up to the podium, in her white suit, and was confident in the case and the facts. She presented her argument, the strongest of which was that the FBI investigated this case, and the family members could not have known what the FBI could not find out during their investigation. Judge Bramelette stated that this argument was particularly strong. He then went on to discuss two cases, one of which was favorable to us, and one of which was not. Unfortunately, I had not come across either case in my research. Professor Burnham distinguished the case unfavorable to us from ours, and when she sat down next to me, she jokingly told me I was fired.
In May 2009, I graduated and took the Massachusetts Bar Exam. In June of 2009, Judge Bramlette denied Franklin County’s Motion to Dismiss, and the case continued to the next stage; Discovery. I began to work for CRRJ full time in September, 2009. I jumped into the case like never before. I thought I had a good understanding of the case until I was faced with 5000 pages of transcript from the 2007 James Ford Seale trial, over 6000 pages of FBI investigatory reports. We had to produce documents and answer interrogatories, all stages of litigation that were somewhat new to me. I learned a lot under the supervision of Professor Burnham. I started to spit out the facts of the case with ease. I knew what documents said what, and where to find them among the electronic files. I learned how to electronically search through documents that were typed up on a typewriter in the 1960s.
We then began to prepare for the depositions of Thomas Moore and Thelma Collins. In October 2009, we flew to New Orleans, Louisiana. We met Thomas in the airport. This was the first time I had met our client. We had only spoken briefly over the phone. Thomas has a striking personality and asked me if I was excited about the case; I responded “of course.” We picked up Ms. Collins, our other client, and drove late in the night to Jackson, Mississippi. The next day we were planning to prepare for the depositions. We discussed damages, strategy, and looked at documents.. The next day, both Thomas and Thelma were ready. Thomas sat through one and a half days worth of deposition testimony and was sharp, responsive, and clear throughout the entire process. Before the beginning of the second day of depositions, I found out that I passed the bar. Professor Burnham, Thomas, Thelma and I had a little celebration outside the car before walking into the opposing counsel’s office.
Once we returned to Boston, I felt excited to be working on my first case as an official attorney. Thomas quickly became not only a client, but also a friend. I talked to him frequently throughout the week. I remember receiving a call from him around Thanksgiving to let me know that one of our key witnesses had died. We began to prepare for the next round of depositions. We were planning to depose Charles Marcus Edwards, the man who was granted immunity to testify against James Ford Seale during the 2007 trial. Professor Burnham added Attorney David Kelston to the legal team. We went back down to Mississippi in January for the depositions of Evie-Bell Shaw, Marion King, Burl Jones, Oscar Hughes, and Charles Marcus Edwards.
Evie-Bell Shaw is Thomas and Charles Moore’s cousin. Charles spent the night at her house the day before he was killed. Marion King’s name surfaced in a Mississippi Highway Patrol report. In the 1960s, she and her husband owned shops and business establishments around Franklin County. They employed black workers, and were met with great opposition. One of her establishments was set on fire. She went to talk to Governor Paul Johnson to complain, and stated that members of Franklin County law enforcement were in the Klan. Burl Jones was named in the plaintiff’s complaint. He had been beaten up in a similar fashion as Moore and Dee. He was arrested, dragged out of jail, taken to the woods, and left on the side of the road. Jones left Mississippi and moved to Chicago where he remained, until recently. Oscar Hughes, a ninety year old man, was with Reverend Clyde Briggs in Crosby, Mississippi, when Deputy Sheriff Kirby Shell came to get Reverend Briggs to bring him back to open up his church in Roxie.
The deposition of Charles Marcus Edwards was unforgettable in my opinion. He pled his fifth amendment right to stay silent so as to not incriminate himself. Still, Attorney Kelston asked him every question he had planned to ask him, regardless, in order to preserve it for the record. I remember the troubled look on the faces of Edwards’ attorneys as Kelston told them of his plan. Sitting across a small conference room table in Meadville, Mississippi with a former (or maybe not so former) member of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan was a memorable moment of my life. Thomas, also present, maintained his composure throughout. During a break from questioning, Edwards found Moore in the hallway and shook his hand. Thomas later told us that Edwards said to him that he did not know why Kelston had to ask him all of these questions, because all his statements had been said before and were known.
After the depositions, we visited other people in the neighboring towns to find out if there were any more potential witnesses. For the first time, I was able to see the very road that Moore and Dee were walking along when they disappeared on May 2, 1964. We saw Mt. Olive Church, the church that the Moore family attended. Thomas took us to Charles Moore’s grave, and I was saddened that the date of death on the grave still read June 12, 1964, the day his body was found. It was not until 2007, that Thomas was able to find out that his brother actually died the day he disappeared on May 2, 1964. Thomas Moore’s mother, Mazie Moore passed away and would never know the day her son really died.
We visited a cast of characters including Reverend Briggs son, Charles. Charles still lived in the very house where he was raised with his family. Reverend Briggs and his family suffered several attacks on the home. Shots had come into his daughter Chastisy’s room. Briggs showed us the bullet hole, never fixed. He also showed us the back porch light that had been shot out one night. Earlier, we spoke by phone with Edward, Charles’brother.. Edward was the second oldest, and remembered Constable Jack Davis threatening his father during the same night that shots hit their home.
We went back to Mississippi in March 2010 for the last round of witness depositions. We deposed the current Sheriff, James Newman. New facts had come to light before Newman’s deposition. Professor Burnham had found information that demonstrated that Frank Allen, President of the Franklin County Board of Supervisors was a self admitted member of the KKK. He said in an FBI report that it was politically expedient to be a member of the Klan at that time. Newman, in his deposition, was hesitant to discuss Klan membership of any former county official, but made it clear that it such membership was possible, because he knew officials that were members. He did not mention names.
After March we began to get ready for summary judgment motions. Our Opposition Motion was another legal hurdle that we had to climb in order to get to trial. The Defendants filed their Motion for Summary Judgment on April 14, 2010. On the same day, they also filed motions to strike the expected testimony of our four expert witnesses. We had 15 days to respond to all five motions. I found out that I would be leaving CRRJ on May 3, 2010 to start my position as an Associate at DLA Piper. The legal team, and the research assistants worked hard to draft these motions. After MUCH hard work, and long nights, we filed all of the motions at midnight on April 30, 2010, with one hour to go. (Mississippi is an hour behind). I was sad to leave all the hard work, but knew that there would be a settlement conference in the next month.
On June 9, 2010, I sat in my office, waiting for a call about whether or not the case had settled. I went home, and was on the treadmill when I received a call from Thomas.. He said the case had settled. Although there was no trial, the clients were happy with the outcome, and I was happy for them. My experience working on this case was unique, life-changing, and I will always be grateful to Professor Margaret Burnham for what I learned from her as a first year law student, a third year law student, and an attorney. The experiences I received were priceless, and it was the best opportunity to learn – one on one – from a truly brilliant woman. I am also lucky I have met so many great people during this journey, especially Thomas Moore, who I am now happy to call my friend.