A New Chapter for “Mississippi Burning” Case

Originally posted: June 10, 2005

Greencastle, Ind. – “In Neshoba County, Mississippi, the basement of the past is not very deep.” So said Florence Mars in the opening lines of her memoir of the 1964 Ku Klux Klan murders of civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney.

When proceedings begin Monday morning in the Neshoba County courtroom of Judge Marcus Gordon, the entire state of Mississippi will finally face the ghosts in that basement.

On trial for three counts of murder is Edgar Ray Killen, a local Klan leader who allegedly organized the murders and for four decades has escaped punishment. Of all the violence in the civil rights era, this case galvanized the most national attention and stamped itself indelibly on the character of the county and the state.

In January, when a Neshoba County grand jury returned charges against Killen, the Jackson Clarion Ledger editorialized about a feeling of collective guilt so grave that righting it seemed an impossible task: “Outsiders do not know the nuances of that stigma and how deeply it has affected every citizen for four decades.”

So long ago, 1964 was the year Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf resolution, clearing the way for an escalation of the Vietnam War; the Warren Commission reported that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in killing President Kennedy. That summer, thousands of mostly white, Northern, civil rights workers came to Mississippi to encourage voter registration, and while the FBI searched for the bodies of three of them, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Bill.

Back then, using paid informants, the FBI unraveled a conspiracy involving local Klan members and Neshoba County law enforcement authorities, who themselves attended Klan rallies dressed in Klan regalia. The state of Mississippi never brought murder charges and in the ’60s there was no federal murder statute. So, in 1967, the federal government charged 19 with a conspiracy to violate civil rights. Among those convicted was Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers, now serving a life sentence for giving the order to kill civil rights leader Vernon Dahmer in 1966.

On Edgar Ray “Preacher” Killen, the 1967 jury voted guilty, 11-1. Killen was a local sawmill operator who received the call to preach as a young man, performing weddings, funerals and Sunday services at primitive Baptist churches, preaching that God supports racial segregation. He escaped with a hung jury because the lone, holdout juror later said she could never vote to convict a preacher.

In 1998, Sam Bowers gave an interview implicating Killen as the chief organizer of the Goodman, Schwerner, Chaney murders. That gave Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore impetus to re-open the case. Armed with 40,000 pages of FBI reports, Moore warned those involved in the 1964 killings and still living that they could be witnesses now or defendants later. Though eight are still around, often living in the same houses with the same phone numbers they had then, the grand jury indicted only Preacher Killen.

The prosecution witness list will include the mothers of Andy Goodman and James Chaney and the widow of Mickey Schwerner. The strategy will be to tell their personal stories and remind the jury, as one Neshoba native puts it, that “They were just kids.”

The case has now passed to the next attorney general, Jim Hood, who is asking old FBI informants, whom the Bureau will not identify, to voluntarily come forward. Hood and his local counsel, Mark Duncan, also have the 3,000-page transcript of the 1967 trial available. Under Mississippi court rules, sworn testimony of witnesses who are dead or unavailable may be introduced as long as those witnesses were cross-examined.

Not everyone agrees this trial is necessary; some argue that it is not worth the trouble to put an 80-year-old man in prison for the last few years
of his life. But support for the prosecution is strong in exactly the place where 40 years ago the local population closed ranks in support of the murderers. A local Neshoba coalition of blacks, whites and Choctaw Indians urged prosecutors to re-open the case. A new generation that had no liability in the original crime has a strong sense to make things right.

There is common agreement on one point: All will depend on jury selection. The task will be to find jurors who have not already made up their minds.

Next week: From inside the courtroom.

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