Skip to comments.40 years on, man is back on trial for Mississippi Burning murders
Posted on 01/08/2005 8:50:22 AM PST by M. Espinola
FOUR decades on, an alleged Ku Klux Klansman known as The Preacher yesterday became the first person to be charged with murder in the Mississippi Burning killings that rocked 1960s America.
Edgar Ray Killen, now 79, a former sawmill owner and Baptist minister, appeared in court accused of leading the mob of white supremacists who chased down three young civil rights workers in the racially divided Southern state 40 years ago. Dressed in an ill-fitting orange prison uniform, Mr Killen boomed not guilty three times as he entered his pleas.
Shortly after he was remanded the courthouse was cleared because of a bomb threat.
The triple murder, the subject of Alan Parkers 1988 film Mississippi Burning, is the most notorious unresolved case of the civil rights era in America.
The three civil rights workers a black man from Mississippi and two white New Yorkers were registering black voters as part of the Freedom Summer campaign that brought hundreds of idealistic young people to the Deep South. On June 21st, 1964, the three men James Chaney and the New Yorkers Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman drove to inspect the ruins of a black church near the town of Philadelphia that had been firebombed by the Ku Klux Klan.
They were arrested for speeding by the deputy sheriff, who allegedly tipped off the Klan that the men were in his custody. That night the three were released and found themselves pursued by a convoy of alleged Klansmen as they drove out of town.
After a 100mph chase the Klansmen ambushed their car and took them to an isolated spot on Rock Cut Road where they were killed. Schwerner and Goodman, who had arrived in Mississippi only the previous day, were shot; Chaney was beaten to death.
Their stationwagon was set ablaze and dumped in a swamp. A bulldozer was used to bury the bodies in the hope that they would never be found.
The FBI, helped by 200 American sailors, began one of its largest-ever searches. Forty-four days later, after a tip-off, the corpses were found interred in red clay on a farm.
The killings prompted an outcry across the nation. Within a month President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. State authorities did not prosecute, but the federal government put 18 men on trial on conspiracy charges.
According to testimony at the trial, Mr Killen, a Kleagle or organiser of the local clan, had led the posse that killed the trio after receiving a tip from the deputy sheriff.
The court was told that Mr Killen had received orders from the Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan to kill Schwerner because of his efforts to organise a boycott of a white-owned shop that refused to hire black staff. The all-white jury convicted seven of the defendants, including the Grand Wizard, Sam Bowers, of conspiracy. None served more than six years in prison.
Mr Killens case led to a mistrial, when one of the jurors said that she could never convict a preacher.
The Mississippi Attorney-General reopened the case in 1999 after the local Clarion-Ledger newspaper published excerpts of an interview given by the former Grand Wizard to a state archivist that was intended to remain sealed until his death. In the interview, Bowers, who is serving a life sentence for ordering the 1966 firebombing that killed a civil rights worker named Vernon Dahmer , boasted that the man behind the Mississippi Burning killings had walked free. 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 said.
Everybody knows that that happened.
Mr Killen denied any role in the deaths, but refused to denounce the killers. Im not going to say they were wrong, he told the Clarion-Ledger. I believe in self-defence.
Mr Goodmans mother, Carolyn, now 89, expressed delight that she had lived to see Mr Killen indicted. From her home in New York, she said she knew that, in the end, the right thing was going to happen . . . Im not looking for revenge. Im looking for justice.
Extremists with staying power # The first branch was established in Pulaski, Tennessee, in 1866
# The leaders were former Confederate Army members who opposed ending slavery
# Klansmen in masks, white cardboard hats and draped in white sheets, tortured and killed black Americans and sympathetic whites
# Between 1868 and 1870 the Klan helped to restore white rule in North Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia # Its objective achieved, the Klan all but disappeared by the end of the 19th century
# It was reformed in 1915 and also became hostile to Jews, Roman Catholics, socialists, communists and anybody identified as a foreigner
# By 1925 membership reached 4 million
# After the conviction of Klan leader David C. Stephenson for second-degree murder and evidence of corruption by other members including the Governor of Indiana and the Mayor of Indianapolis, Klan membership fell to 30,000
# The organisation was formally disbanded in 1944 # The emergence of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s resulted in a revival
# Huge pressure was put on blacks by Klansmen not to vote. By 1960 in Mississippi, 42 per cent of the population were black but only 2 per cent were registered to vote
(Historic Photos added)
Scene outside Meridian courthouse (NYT photo)
Ten conspirators at arraignment
Deputy Sheriff Price and Sheriff Rainey at arraignment. (Neshoba County had the largest per capita consumption of chewing tobacco of any county in the United States.)
Delmar Dennis was a young Methodist minister and Klan member who became a vital witness for the government in the Mississippi Burning trial. In his trial testimony, Dennis described the June 16th Klan meeting in an abandoned school building in which the plan to murder Schwerner was discussed. He also described and explained a coded letter by Sam Bowers to Klan members urging silence in the face of the FBI investigation of the killings. Finally, Dennis may have sealed Bowers's conviction by quoting a remark he made following the murders: "It was the first time that Christians had planned and carried out the execution of a Jew."
(Historic photos added)
Prediction: if the answer is something else, we'll not find out from the LSM.
The foreigner is a little imprecise. The Klan was formed in Middle Tennessee. East Tennessee didn't need any help from anybody in reestablishing anything. We were always loyal to the Union in our part of the state and probably more loyal to the Union than such Copperhead dens as New York City. We didn't need any help From the USA in reconstructing Tennessee. No postwar military rule in Tennessee. In 1865 a loyal Tennessean, William Brownlow of Knoxville, became governor and reconstructed the state in a manner that would satisfy any radical Republican.
these were democrats.
I lived in Meridian from '81-'83 ... there were still severe tensions, just not out in the open.
I would think at age 79 I would want to come clean and get right with the Lord. How anyone could live with this on their conscience this long is beyond me. This is not the early 50's and he cannot claim the stupidity of youth. He will meet his Maker and will confess but it will be too late.
Its interesting how they try to link this with being Christian. Sounds like homonazis. I'm not trying to take away from the seriousness of the crime and the need for justice, but this is so inflammatory to race relations in this country. It makes me think about Hiliary 2008
It's a shame some people retain the such hate, every today.
In terms of Hillary, "A top aide in Sen. Hillary Clinton's 2000 Senate race was indicted Friday on federal charges of filing false documents that allegedly low-balled costs and hid generous assistance in putting on a star-studded Hollywood gala". We can only hope she too is held accountable and real soon!
The thing inside him remains. If this one lives to be 100 in order to rid himself of the raging hate, the resolution must come from him.
Dixiecrats, everyone of them.
Props to Micheael. He took the words right out of my mouth. 'Christian' has been, unfortunately, a cover for all kinds of wrongdoing.
The Magic Christian....