There was a generation of Mississippians who not only were unapologetic for their involvement in violent institutional racism enforced by fear and mob rule, but were likewise rather proud of their notorious reputations earned in pursuit of those misguided and dangerous goals.
That’s the cold, ominous persona I remember being projected by a Ku Klux Klansman that I regularly encountered on the streets and in the grocery stores aisles of my hometown of Philadelphia.
One of the really fine things about the recent opening of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson is that the murders of Andrew Goodman, James Earl Chaney, and Michael Schwerner will never be forgotten.
Future generations of Mississippians will in perpetuity have a chance to learn the hard but necessary lessons that it took far too many in our state far too long to learn – that American civil rights are supposed to freely and organically extend to all men and women regardless their race, color, creed, religion, or national origin.
Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney were murdered in Neshoba County on June 21, 1964, by members of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. The trio was detained subsequent to their attempts to investigate of the burning of an African American church in the county and later shot to death on an isolated rural road.
A massive FBI investigation into the murders of the three produced 21 arrests, 18 indictments and seven convictions on federal charges of conspiracy to violate the civil rights of the slain trio by men linked to the Klan.
But despite those 1967 conspiracy convictions, none of the men implicated in the Neshoba murders ever faced the scrutiny of a state court grand jury considering murder charges against them – not until Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood and Neshoba County District Attorney Mark Duncan in 2005 took a state murder case to trial against ordained Baptist minister and sawmill operator Edgar Ray “Preacher” Killen – the reputed “kleagle” or local organizer for the KKK in Neshoba County.
Killen received a mistrial in the 1967 case, but in 2005 was convicted on three counts of manslaughter and sentenced to three 20-year terms in the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman. His conviction in Neshoba County came 41 years to the day after Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney were murdered.
Four days short of his 93rd birthday, Killen died in prison at Parchman last week on Jan. 11. Duncan is now a circuit judge in Mississippi’s Eighth District, which encompasses Neshoba County. Hood is still the state’s attorney general and many believe the odds-on favorite – if he wants the job – as the Democratic nominee for Mississippi governor in the 2019 general election.
In 2016, the federal and state law enforcement community announced the official closing of the “Mississippi Burning” case – citing the fact that the passage of more than a half-century had left no credible investigative leads to follow and that death had claimed virtually every potential defendant from the original list of federal indictments. Was true justice ever rendered in the 1964 Neshoba County civil rights murders? No.
But originally, federal prosecutors fought the fight as far as Mississippians would help them carry it in the political and social climate of the 1960s. In 2005, Mississippians and Neshoba Countians were ready to exorcise the Klan demons from the county’s psyche and sought justice free of federal urgings.
Edgar Ray Killen was a powerful symbol of Klan lawlessness in our state and the lack of political and social will to confront that lawlessness at the time it occurred. His conviction, unlikely as it was in the twilight of his life at the age of 79, was just as powerful a symbol of how far the state had come in a half-century.
While full justice was eluded in the 1964 Neshoba County case, racism in less violent but no less injurious forms remains an evil in some circles in Mississippi. The passing of “Preacher” Killen signals that perhaps it’s time to move forward from these old atrocities and engage and confront the new and evolving ones.