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   Vol. 69/No. 3           January 25, 2005  
40 years later: Mississippi Klansman
charged for civil rights workers’ murder
(front page)
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama—On January 7 Edgar Ray Killen, 79, appeared at the Neshoba County Courthouse in Philadelphia, Mississippi, and was charged with three counts of murder in the 1964 slayings of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. A Neshoba County grand jury had returned indictments in the case the previous day. Killen, a Baptist preacher who ran a sawmill, was a well-known leader of the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi. Fellow Klansmen admitted in the past that Killen organized the murders, but he has never been indicted or convicted for this crime. Killen pleaded “not guilty.”

“It’s 40 years too late,” said R.C. Howard of Tchula, Mississippi, in a telephone interview about Killen’s indictment. Howard, a farmer who is Black, is a member of the Mileston Cooperative. “Why did they wait? They knew who did these murders all along. It doesn’t matter that he’s old. They let him live his life. He’s old now, but he wasn’t old when he did those murders and killed those young people. He took their lives. They talk about the ‘wheels of justice’—well, the wheels have turned for him now. And they need to dig up the other ones who did it and bury them in the prison!”

Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner—in their early 20s when they were brutally murdered—were in Neshoba County in the summer of 1964 to help register Blacks to vote. The effort was part of “Freedom Summer,” which drew young volunteers from around the country to Mississippi to join one of the central campaigns of the civil rights movement. Chaney was from Meridian, Mississippi; Schwerner and Goodman were from New York City.

The three disappeared June 21, 1964, after driving to the Mount Zion Baptist Church in Neshoba County to investigate the Ku Klux Klan’s burning of the church and beating of its members five days earlier. Two days later, FBI agents found the burnt-out station wagon they were driving in a swamp northeast of Philadelphia, Mississippi. Forty-four days after their disappearance, the bodies of Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman were found buried 15 feet beneath an earthen dam.

Killen, a widely acknowledged Klan leader in Neshoba County at the time of the murders, was one of 19 suspects indicted February 1967 on federal charges of depriving the three civil rights workers of their constitutional rights. Only seven of the suspects were convicted and none served more than six years in prison. At the time, Killen’s case resulted in a mistrial and he was released. The state of Mississippi never brought murder charges against those responsible for the killings until Killen’s indictment last week.

Eight of the original defendants are still alive, but it is not clear whether more indictments will be handed down. Some of those charged in the 1967 case told investigators at the time that Killen had helped recruit and organize the Klan party that hunted down, beat, shot, and buried Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner.

In 1999, the state attorney general’s office reopened the case after the Jackson Clarion-Ledger published excerpts from a sealed interview that state archives officials had with Sam Bowers, former “Imperial Wizard” of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. In the interview, Bowers admitted his role in the murders of the three civil rights workers. Referring to Killen, Bowers said, “I was quite delighted to be convicted and have the main instigator of the entire affair walk out of the courtroom a free man.” Bowers was one of the seven convicted on conspiracy charges. He is currently serving a life sentence in a Mississippi prison for ordering the 1966 firebombing in Hattiesburg that killed NAACP leader Vernon Dahmer, Sr. He was convicted of that crime in 1998.

Pressure to actively pursue the case has been mounting in recent months. In May 2004, the Philadelphia Coalition was formed to press county, state, and federal officials to make renewed efforts to investigate the murders and bring those responsible to justice. Hundreds attended a June 20 meeting at the Neshoba County Coliseum to mark the 40th anniversary of the slayings and back the call to reopen the case. The meeting drew residents of Neshoba County, Black and white; veterans of the civil rights movement; family members of the slain volunteers; students and other young people from around the state; and many others. Shortly after Killen’s arraignment, a bomb threat was phoned in to the Neshoba County Courthouse. Killen’s brother reportedly knocked down a television cameraman to the ground outside the courthouse at the January 7 arraignment.

Since 1989, officials in Mississippi and five other states have reexamined 23 killings from the civil rights movement and made 27 arrests. Of those arrested, there have been 21 convictions, two acquittals, and one mistrial.

Meanwhile, the Jackson City Council voted in December to change the name of the city’s airport to the Jackson-Evers International Airport. Medgar Evers was a leader of the Mississippi NAACP who was murdered by the Klan in 1963.
Related articles:
Is it justice, 40 years later?
SWP in 1964: ‘Federal troops to Mississippi!’
U.S. gov’t inaction encouraged lynchings in Mississippi  
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