Forty-One Years Later, a Chance for Justice in Mississippi

Originally posted: June 17, 2005

PHILADELPHIA, Miss. — Each morning, as Edgar Ray Killen arrives at the Neshoba County courthouse, he is greeted by J.J. Harper whose business card identifies him as the Imperial Wizard of the American White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

Harper has come from Cordele, Ga., he says, to support Killen, 80, a sawmill operator and part-time preacher who faces three counts of murder for the 1964 slayings of civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner. Killen, who publicly insists he has never been part of the Klan, usually gives Harper an indifferent grip as his wheelchair is pushed up the handicap ramp to the courthouse.

Inside, the presiding Circuit Court judge is Marcus Gordon, 73, with 26 years on the bench. The opening three days of this long-awaited trial were spent finding a hopefully impartial jury of 12, plus five alternates. The jury consists of 11 women, six men; 13 whites, four blacks; many born after the events of 1964 occurred. Asked if they had seen “Mississippi Burning,” the Hollywood depiction of the murders titled for the FBI code name for the case, 80 percent raised their hands. The prosecution began its case Wednesday.

Judge Gordon and Killen both live in the little, rural town of Union, a logging community near the Neshoba County border. One interesting anomaly about this case is that in 1965, Judge Gordon lost his mother and his father on the same day. When he looks down from the bench at the defendant facing murder charges, he sees Preacher Killen, who presided at the Marcus family funerals.

Hollow-cheeked and bald, Killen looks every bit his age, but as he listened to the attorney general of Mississippi lay out the case against him, he took notes and conferred with his lawyers. The prosecution says it will prove that Killen masterminded the murders; arranged to have the three boys arrested and detained while he assembled a lynch mob of fellow Klansmen; orchestrated their release and recapture; arranged for them to be murdered and buried in an earthen dam near Philadelphia; and found a bulldozer operator to put them under 15 feet of red clay around midnight on June 21, 1964.

It charges that Killen was the top recruiter for the Klan in at least two Mississippi counties. When the mob was assembled, Killen explained that Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers had approved the “elimination” of the boys. To cement his alibi, before the actual killings, Killen left for a funeral home where he could be seen in public.

Goodman and Schwerner, both white and Jewish and from New York, were in Mississippi to help register black voters as part of Freedom Summer. Chaney was a local black man who often brought his 10-year-old brother, Ben, to movement headquarters. Ben often told folks he wanted to be the first black president. He was deeply scarred by his brother’s murder.

The prosecution witness list includes other members of the Klan who participated in the murders, presumably testifying against Killen with immunity. Ben Chaney insists everyone involved should be prosecuted for murder.

The local paper, The Neshoba Democrat, supports the trial, but just two months before the murders in 1964, the same paper editorialized: “Outsiders who come in here and try to provoke and stir up trouble should be dealt with in a manner they won’t forget.”

There is no statute of limitations on murder. Those who support trying Killen, even after 41 years, say it is a blessing that Mississippi never before brought charges. In 1964, it would have meant a handpicked, all-white jury and a certain acquittal, rendering this trial and any real justice impossible.

In opening arguments, Killen’s lawyers made an interesting concession, admitting he was part of the Klan, but merely a bystander and not the “godfather” of the plot.

The defense strategy is to aim for a hung jury, to find one or more among the teachers, bus driver, poultry workers, chicken farmer and social worker on this jury who can be convinced that after 40-years justice is impossible, that the evidence against Killen is circumstantial and anecdotal, that those who pulled the trigger should be on trial, not someone who wasn’t even at the scene of the crime. Or perhaps that they just cannot vote to convict a Baptist preacher of murder. It has happened before.

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