By Meteor Blades
If Edgar Ray Killen gets the maximum sentence, he’ll be 100 when he leaves prison. Partway to justice, I suppose. Any time behind bars for an octogenarian is bound to be hard time, though I would dearly have loved to see him on a chain gang. Thanks to a weak presentation by the prosecution, the jurors couldn’t agree to nail the Ku Klux Klan “kleagle” for murdering James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner 41 years ago. Manslaughter was the best they could do. Worse, no case was brought against four others involved in the slayings, so they still live free in Mississippi. I suppose they’ll die free.
I was preparing to head to Jackson, Mississippi, that June day when the three went missing. As I have written here, I was one of the youngest of several hundred volunteers for Freedom Summer, the culmination of years of direct action to end American apartheid that included bus strikes, Freedom Rides, sit-ins, black attempts to enroll at publicly funded white universities and voter registration. Organized and trained by the Congress on Racial Equality and Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, our job was to register black voters in Mississippi, considered the toughest segregationist state to crack, a place where black civil rights workers had been routinely harassed, beaten, arrested, firebombed and murdered for years. When we heard the news of Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner’s disappearance, we all knew they were dead. In spite of the pleas of some of our mothers, we went to Mississippi anyway.
In pairs, we went door-to-door, sometimes welcomed, sometimes chased off the porch, urging black men and women who had never voted to risk registering and fulfil the 98-year-old promise of the Fifteenth Amendment. All of us were harassed and “warned,” dozens of us were beaten, hundreds of us were arrested, many jailed. Three of us were murdered.
We weren’t unique. Black Mississippians who tried to register voters got the same treatment. To cite just one example: together with a friend, the Rev. George Lee, a minister, grocer and printer, started a local chapter of the NAACP. He persuaded nearly 100 blacks to register. On May 7, 1955, Lee was driving home when someone shotgunned him from a passing car. The Humphreys County sheriff said Lee was killed in a traffic accident, and claimed the lead pellets in his face and head were probably dental fillings. The coroner ruled Lee had died from "unknown causes." No one was ever arrested in the case.
So it was no surprise that Edgar Ray and his 17 Klan pals smirked their way through much of proceedings when the feds tried them in 1967 for the murders of Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney. Why not? These men had already escaped prosecution by racists and cowards in state government, their jury was all-white, and William Harold Cox, the presiding judge in the federal case, was a segregationist through and through. He had dismissed the indictments against the 18, but the U.S. Supreme Court had ordered them reinstated. Cox owed his appointment on the bench to his friend and law school roommate, the powerful Senator James O. Eastland. President Kennedy sought to appoint Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court, and Eastland said to Robert Kennedy, “Tell your brother that if he will give me Harold Cox I will give him the nigger.”
Part way through the trial, one of the defense attorneys, Laurel Weir,asked a prosecution witness about one of the dead activists, Mickey Schwerner:
“Now let me ask you if you and Mr. Schwerner didn’t advocate and try to get young male Negroes to sign statements agreeing to rape a white woman a week during the hot summer of 1964?” Cox’s lips trembled. He told Weir the question was “highly improper” unless the defense had “a good basis” for it. He demanded to know what that basis might be. “A note was passed to me by someone,” answered Weir. Cox persisted, “Well, who is the author of that question?” A pause. Herman Alford, one of the other defense attorneys, broke the embarrassing silence at the defense table. “Brother Killen wrote the question, one of the defendants.” Edgar Ray Killen raised his hand.
While the question was a blunder that changed the tenor of the trial and may well have helped jurors convict seven of the defendants, they acquitted eight and deadlocked on three, including Killen, a Klan recruiter who the prosecution thought was the organizer of the slayings, even though he wasn’t at the scene when the three were beaten, shot and buried in a berm. One juror said she couldn’t vote to convict a preacher. No doubt Edgar Ray smirked at that, too.
Whatever the prosecution’s failures in the current case, I didn’t see him smirking after the jury convicted him Tuesday. He did, however, take a swipe at a reporter as he left the court house.
Martin Luther King called Philadelphia, Mississippi, one of the worst racist cesspools he had ever visited, and he had spent time throughout the South. The legacy of the Klan’s reign of terror still casts a shadow on Philadelphia. But without the efforts of two groups, the Philadelphia Coalition, a multi-racial organization of local citizens, and the congregation of Mt. Zion United Methodist Church, the Killen trial would never have come to pass, and they have partially redeemed their community. Mt Zion, which was burned at the orders of Killen after Chaney and Schwerner recruited it as a freedom school, has held a memorial service commemorating the sacrifice of the three men every year since they were murdered. Fittingly, today through Friday, the coalition will join with other groups in Philadelphia, including UNESCO’s Breaking the Silence project, to participate in the Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner Living Memorial Civil Rights Education Summit.
Out of this trial and others like it since 1989 – including the that convicted Byron de la Beckwith, assassin of Medgar Evers – can come healing, as long as we remember that belated justice is only one step forward in closing our nation’s racial divide four decades after the official death of Jim Crow.