Town haunted by civil rights slaying is divided over dredging up the past


Published: Sunday, January 9, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 9, 2005 at 12:51 a.m.
Reputed Ku Klux Klan member Edgar Ray Killen waits in the Neshoba County Courthouse, in Philadelphia, Miss., on Friday to be arraigned on murder charges in the 1964 slayings of three civil rights workers.
Town split over reliving civil rights murders
  • As some see justice served, others would rather forget the crime.
    The Associated Press PHILADELPHIA, Miss. - Wilford Barrett, whose barber shop sits across the street from the county courthouse, thinks the 41-year-old slaying of three civil rights workers should stay where it is: in the past.
    ''It's been so long ago,'' he said. ''I wouldn't mess with it.''
    The arrest of former Ku Klux Klan leader Edgar Ray Killen Thursday in one of the most horrific crimes of the civil rights era was for some a satisfying culmination of a long-delayed hunt for justice.
    But others here would rather forget the crime, along with the stain of violent racism it left on the town.
    Killen, 79, and his wife, Betty Jo, have lived in the same house for 40 years and are familiar figures in the small, rural Mississippi town that became infamous with the 1964 slayings dramatized in the 1988 movie ''Mississippi Burning.''
    James Chaney, a 21-year-old black Mississippian, and two white New Yorkers, Andrew Goodman, 20, and Michael Schwerner, 24, were ambushed by Klansmen, beaten and shot. Killen is the first to face state murder charges in their deaths.
    Long a focus of suspicion, Killen made a livelihood from farming, operating a sawmill and preaching to a small congregation at Smyrna Baptist Church.
    He's old now - a tall, thin man with a balding head. He is being held in isolation at the Neshoba County Jail and pleaded innocent Friday to three counts of murder.
    County NAACP President Leroy Clemons said the arrest brings relief to a community haunted by the ghosts of the slain young men, and helps heal long open wounds.
    ''There's been a feeling of futility over the years about nothing being done,'' said Stanley Dearman, the retired editor and publisher of the weekly newspaper, The Neshoba Democrat. ''The case is just as current now as it was the night the murders were committed, legally and morally.''
    But at Barrett's Barbershop, Kenneth Wells snorts when asked if he believes the preacher is a killer.
    ''He's a preacher. He wouldn't have done nothing like that. Everybody knows Edgar Ray Killen,'' said Wells, a 64-year-old lifelong resident of Philadelphia.
    According to FBI files and court transcripts, Killen not only participated in the crime, but did most, if not all, of the planning.
    It was Schwerner the Klansmen were after, said Howard Ball, the author of ''Murder in Mississippi: United States v. Price and the Struggle for Civil Rights'' and a professor of political science at the University of Vermont.
    The three were participating in Freedom Summer 1964 - an effort by hundreds of colleges students from the North to help educate and register blacks to vote in the South. Ball said Schwerner was targeted because he was a paid worker for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).
    ''The other two were killed simply because they were with Schwerner,'' Ball said.
    On the day of the crime, the workers were arrested and accused of speeding while driving to investigate the ruins of a black church that had been firebombed. Then they were released. Authorities said Killen organized the ambush while the men were being held by police.
    Carlton Wallace Miller, at the time a Meridian police officer, testified in the federal trial in 1967 that the local Klan chapter wanted to beat Schwerner but were told by Killen ''to leave him alone'' and that ''another unit was going to take care of him, that his elimination had been approved.''
    Miller testified that Killen told the group that the approval to kill Schwerner came from then-Klan Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers.
    Nineteen men, including Killen, were indicted in the case. Seven were convicted of federal charges of violating the victims' civil rights. None served more than six years.
    Killen's case ended in a hung jury.
    ''He never has apologized. He has continued to claim, against the mountain of evidence showing the reality, that he had nothing to do with this,'' Ball said.
    State Attorney General Jim Hood and District Attorney Mark Duncan said prosecutors will not discuss evidence in the case or what role authorities believe Killen had. The evidence includes the 1967 trial transcripts, 40,000 federal and state documents from the investigation and possibly new witnesses.
    ''If you create too much pretrial publicity, then you poison the potential jury pool,'' Hood said this week.
    Prosecutors hope to follow the trend of convictions in reopened civil rights cases - among them, Bowers, who was convicted in 1998 in the 1966 firebombing death of civil rights leader Vernon Dahmer. Prosecutors have also recently won convictions in the assassination of NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers and the deadly bombing of a Birmingham church in 1963.
    Gloria Browne-Marshall, a Manhattan attorney specializing in civil rights cases, said she finds troubling the idea that bad memories should stop civil rights cases from being reopened.
    ''The fact that this is a crime that deals with a social issue, and a political issue as well, makes us lean toward wanting some closure,'' she said.
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