The Murder Case That Set a US State Alight; MISSISSIPPI BURNING ; on Monday, 41 Years after the Deaths of Three Civil Rights Workers, 80-Year-Old Edgar Ray Killen Will Face Trial, Charged with Murder. and Just as the Civil Rights Movement Divided America, the Case Has Split Killen's Local Community. Andrew Buncombe Reports from Philadelphia, Mississippi

Article excerpt

The only evidence today of the arson that destroyed the Mt Zion United Baptist Church in Philadelphia, Mississippi, are some charred timbers embedded in the ground in front of the rebuilt building and the original bell that once called people to worship.

Other than that, the only obvious clues as to the church's troubled history are three names inscribed on a memorial plaque " James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. The plaque is essentially for tourists: in this part of Mississippi everyone is familiar with these names, which have resonated down the years, and everyone knows their link with this quiet church.

It was 41 years ago this month that the men, aged 21, 20 and 26 respectively, were murdered by members of the Ku-Klux-Klan as they helped black citizens register to vote during the so-called 'Mississippi Freedom Summer'. Their bodies were later discovered by the FBI, buried deep in the clay of an earthen dam 10 miles away.

On Monday, more than four decades after those murders added urgency to the civil rights movement and subsequently inspired the 1988 film Mississippi Burning, a sick and elderly man who was once allegedly a senior member of the Klan is to go on trial charged with the killings. Edgar Ray Killen, 80, a part-time preacher and sawmill owner who was previously tried in a 1967 hearing that resulted in a hung jury, has said he is innocent.

'Not guilty,' he declared loudly when he appeared in court last January to be charged, dressed in a bright orange prison jumpsuit.

Yet the trial, scheduled to take place in the small, neat courthouse located in the centre of town, is about a lot more than simply proving whether this old man is guilty of murder. In the same way as the civil rights movement divided the US back in the Sixties, so this trial has equally split the people of Philadelphia and the surrounding area.

Some say it is vital that justice " however long delayed " is done if the community is to move on from what happened. Others " while condemning the killings " say a trial will simply refuel the antagonism that marked those times and denigrate the advances that have been made since then. And then, most disturbingly, there are those who wonder aloud whether for all the talk of a new South, things in Mississippi today are really that different from the time when the three men were murdered.

Jim Prince, the likeable publisher of the Neshoba Democrat, the town's weekly newspaper, which played an important role supporting demands for the reopening of the investigation, said the town was split at this 'transitional period' in its history. 'Whatever the outcome of this trial, we will have to live with it. Whatever the outcome, our community will be better off,' said Mr Prince, whose predecessor, Stanley Dearman, led a long and principled stand against the Klan. 'The community has done the right thing by calling for justice. If the outcome is Not Guilty so be it, he's not guilty. There will be some people who will go to their graves saying we should not have reopened it but we have done the right thing.'

So much of that past focuses on the murder of the three activists " two white and one black " who had driven to the black Baptist church on the afternoon of 21 June 1964. Five days earlier the building had been set alight by members of the Klan, and church members had been beaten as they searched for Schwerner, a well- known activist hated by the Klansmen for his efforts to register black voters in the nearby town of Meridian. Despite the obvious danger, the three men wanted to see for themselves what had happened and to speak to members of the congregation.

But on their way back to Meridian via Philadelphia, they were stopped by the deputy sheriff and arrested 'for speeding'. Unknown to them, the officer who arrested them was himself a member of the Klan and, after locking up the men in the local jail " now an office building with a 'For Rent' sign outside " he alerted other Klan members. …