'Mississippi Burning' Case Finally Goes to Trial

June 13, 2005 — -- Edgar Ray Killen doesn't hate civil rights activists. He hates communists. The problem is he's had a hard time distinguishing between the two. Fueling his paranoia were America's critics, who in the summer of 1964, cited southern mobs and the murder of a 15-year-old boy as evidence that democracy had failed.

Killen, his county's Ku Klux Klan recruiter, was an enemy of communism and, in his own eyes, an American hero. But history sided with the schoolchildren who walked past the mobs and the mother who left the casket open for the world to see what had been done to her son. Killen, in the end, didn't contribute to the country's good, but may have contributed to one of her worst crimes.

The South of the South

It was a crime that shocked the nation. Three civil rights workers -- Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney -- were murdered while helping to register black voters during the "Freedom Summer" of 1964.

That year Mississippi led the country in racially motivated crimes -- there was a popular saying among activists that "if you could crack Mississippi, you could crack the South."

Killen, a local sawmill owner and ordained minister, was determined not to let that happen. And 41 years later, a murder mystery may finally be solved. Killen, now 80, goes on trial today in Philadelphia, Miss., facing three counts of murder. He has pleaded not guilty.

According to an FBI informant, Killen instructed 18 Klansmen to ambush the activists on a deserted road. Marching the workers deep into the Mississippi woods, Klansman Wayne Roberts reportedly grabbed Schwerner and asked, "Are you a nigger lover?" Schwerner replied, "Sir, I know just how you feel."

For months, newspaper editorials lambasted the civil rights workers as "student invaders," claiming that communists were behind them and their "overall scheme to destroy the United States."

Locals felt like they were under siege, being attacked and judged by outsiders. They clung to the notion of their innocence. The state's collective amnesia meant that no charges were brought against the men involved.

When federal charges were filed, prosecutors tried to convince the jury that the government wasn't "invading" the state of Mississippi. The jury deadlocked after one juror admitted that she couldn't bring herself to convict a preacher.

Jailhouse Confession

Killen's case lay dormant until a charming and unassuming newspaper reporter named Jerry Mitchell saw "Mississippi Burning," a movie that dramatized the events of 1964.

Shocked that the characters literally got away with murder, he began investigating civil rights era crimes. Former Klansmen divulged their most personal memories to him, including Sam Bowers, an Imperial Wizard.

Mitchell unearthed a sealed interview where Bowers admitted that he was "quite delighted to have the main instigator [of the Mississippi murders] walk out of the courtroom a free man."

Bower's was referring to Killen, and his jailhouse bragging caught the attention of Mississippi's District Attorney Mark Duncan.

A Second Chance

Today, Mississippi leads the country in the prosecution of Civil Rights-era crimes, in large part due to the work of a new generation of Southerners who include Mitchell, Duncan and state Attorney General Jim Hood.

Duncan and Hood will jointly prosecute the case against Killen, and the trial is expected to last for two weeks. Hood hopes that the victims' right to have their case presented in a court of law will finally be satisfied.

Killen's attorney, James McIntyre, who was also a defense counsel during the 1967 trial, couldn't disagree more. He thinks the state's priorities are out of whack and that prosecutors should be taking on Mississippi's burgeoning crime problem.

"Everybody on the outside comes in and starts picking on us," he said, "We're on the bottom of the pile in a lot of things down here. But we're good people."

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