Justice Delayed May Not Be Justice Denied

Originally posted: April 22, 2005

ken bode cropThe murder trial begins June 13. The killings were committed in Philadelphia, Miss., 31 years ago.

In this instance justice delayed may not be justice denied, because this case has haunted a county in Mississippi with an unbearable hangover of guilt. Three young civil rights workers were murdered. They were part of Freedom Summer of 1964, a mobilization to get whites involved in Deep South voter registration. The victims: James Chaney, a local black man, and two white Northerners, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman.

Neshoba County, Miss., was deepest South on the civil rights compass in 1964. The Klan publicly posted photos of civil rights workers bearing the words: “Wanted Dead or Alive by the Ku Klux Klan.” It held meetings to instruct members how to make sure a body is never found. The sheriff and his deputy were known Klan members.

John Dittmer tells the story with brilliant brevity in his Bancroft prize-winning book, “Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi:”

“The tragic journey of Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman into the heart of Klan country on Sunday, June 21, is the most depressingly familiar story of the Mississippi movement: their arrest by Neshoba deputy sheriff Cecil Price on the outskirts of Philadelphia shortly after 3:00 P.M.; the incarceration in Sheriff Lawrence Rainey’s jail; their release at about 10:30 that night, only to be stopped again ten miles south of town by Deputy Price, who turned the young men over to a mob; the gangland-style executions by Klansmen; and their burial in a dam under construction in a remote area of the county.”

Forty-four days later the FBI found the bodies. Dittmer says the Neshoba lynching provoked international outrage. They also finally got the FBI involved in investigating racial violence in the South, over J. Edgar Hoover’s objections. In Neshoba, however, as local author Florence Mars put it, the county stood “frozen behind the murderers.” In many ways it remains so today.

Two years after the killings, Martin Luther King Jr. came to the county courthouse for a memorial service. He was surrounded by a white mob with pitchforks and ax handles. King told the crowd: “I believe the murderers are somewhere around me at this moment.” King heard Deputy Sheriff Price respond, “You damn right. They’re right behind you.”

The state of Mississippi put no one on trial for murder. In 1967, the federal government returned 19 indictments for conspiracy to violate the civil rights of Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman. Among those convicted was Sam Bowers, the imperial wizard of the White Knights. Bowers had instructed Neshoba Klansmen to “eliminate” Michael Schwerner, who, with his goatee, was considered the most offensive civil rights worker.

Also indicted was local Neshoba Klan leader, Baptist preacher Edgar Ray Killen. “Preacher” Killen assembled the mob and said there were some civil rights leaders being held in the jail who “needed their rear ends tore up.” He then arranged for the bodies to be dumped and found someone to drive the burial bulldozer.

Sam Bowers went to jail for 10 years, but Preacher Killen drew a hung jury. It is indicative of the federal judiciary in the South at this time that the presiding judge, William Harold Cox, remarked, “They killed one nigger, one Jew and a white man. I gave them all what I thought they deserved.”

A good part of the reason there will finally be a Mississippi murder trial is prize-winning Jackson Clarion-Ledger reporter Jerry Mitchell. You could wallpaper a house with the stories he has written about unresolved civil rights murders.

After prison, Bowers gave an interview to the Mississippi state archives, intended to be released after his death. Bowers insisted he was “delighted to be convicted and have a guilty person walk free.” He meant Preacher Killen.

Mitchell got hold of that interview and two successive attorneys general of Mississippi have taken up the case.

Former secretary of state Dick Molpus was a Neshoba schoolboy 40 years ago who peeked around the corner and listened to Dr. King’s accusation. Speaking at last year’s memorial service, Molpus echoed the words he heard that day: “There are people in this room who know who committed the murders and have not come forward. You know these people. You’ve heard them talking.”

Soon Preacher Killen faces a serious day in court. And maybe, just maybe, Neshoba County, Miss., can begin to bury the past.

(John Dittmer is professor emeritus of history at DePauw University. Read more about him at: http://www.depauw.edu/news/index.asp?id=13209)

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