MISSISSIPPI BURNS FOR JUSTICE; 41 Years on, KuKluxKlan Member on Trial for the Shooting of 3 Civil Rights Campaigners

The Mirror (London, England), June 16, 2005 | Go to article overview

MISSISSIPPI BURNS FOR JUSTICE; 41 Years on, KuKluxKlan Member on Trial for the Shooting of 3 Civil Rights Campaigners


Byline: From RYAN PARRY in Philadelphia, Mississippi

I N the sticky heat of a Mississippi back road, three young civil rights workers were driving for their lives.

It was June 21, 1964 - Freedom Summer - and the men, two white and one black, had been out to investigate a burning church.

Theirs was a dangerous business, deep in Ku Klux Klan territory, leading a radical drive to register black voters in America's ferociously racist South.

Their actions, their defiant courage, had enraged the white extremists of Philadelphia, Mississippi, who were now closing in on them, a lynch mob packed into two jolting, swaying cars.

Minutes later the three terrified men were dragged from their car seats, beaten senseless in the dust and shot dead by Klan members - the sound of the shots resounding down through American history.

Now, 41 years later, the man suspected of orchestrating the killings is finally facing justice, bringing closure to a case - immortalised in the movie, Mississippi Burning - that has festered on the American conscience for four decades.

A suspected member of the KKK, Edgar Ray Killen, faces charges of murder for the triple-slaying and yesterday jury selection was underway amid tight security.

Roads around the Neshoba County Courthouse in the tiny Mississippi town of Philadelphia were cut off as potential jurors filed into the red-brick building.

Frail, wearing thick glasses and virtually bald, Killen was wheeled by his middle-aged stepson into court. In March he broke both his legs in a tree-felling accident.

N OW 80, Killen was first greeted outside the courthouse by Joseph J. Harper, an imperial wizard of the American White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

Dapper in a navy blue pinstripe suit, Harper shook Killen's hand and was overheard to say: "If there's anything I can do for you, call me."

As Killen disappeared through the courthouse doors, someone called out "Good luck, preacher" - a nod to Killen's work as a Baptist minister.

Police reopened the investigation in 2004 and while Killen is accused of orchestrating the murders, only three of the men suspected of actually carrying them out are still alive.

Forty years ago, the victims - Andrew Goodman, 20, and Michael Schwerner, 24 both white, and 21-year-old James Chaney, a black man - had decided to investigate a torched church after the FBI had said Klan members had beaten worshippers then the building on fire.

But, before they reached the church, police arrested them for speeding and tossed them into the Neshoba County Jail.

Prosecutors say that while the three men were imprisoned, a gang of Klan members plotted to kill them.

Hours later, police released them and watched as they drove away in their car. Behind them was the mob of Klansmen intent on their murder.

After a 44-day search, FBI agents finally found the bodies, buried 15 feet under a road-side dam. Sawmill worker and part-time Baptist preacher Killen was quickly accused of planning the killings.

But the state of Mississippi never charged anyone with the crime, and federal laws against murder did not exist at the time. Instead, the federal government could only try 18 men, including Killen, on charges of conspiring to violate the civil rights of the victims. Seven were convicted and served prison sentences of no more than six years. The rest were acquitted, Killen among them.

During the 1967 trial, former Ku Klux Klansman James Jordan testified that Killen told the men involved that the police "had three of the civil rights workers locked up, and we had to hurry and get there and we were to pick them up and tear their butts up".

Killen walked free after the all-white jury deadlocked 11-1 in favour of conviction. The lone juror who decided against conviction said at the time that she "could never convict a preacher". …

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