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Civil-Rights Era Murder Suspect to Appear at Fair

A white supremacist group invites Edgar Ray Killen to appear at its booth in Mississippi.

September 25, 2004|Ellen Barry | Times Staff Writer

ATLANTA — A white supremacist organization's booth at the Mississippi State Fair this fall will feature a figure from the archives of the state's bloody civil rights struggle: Edgar Ray Killen, a preacher who was accused of planning the murders of three civil rights workers in the summer of 1964.

Mississippians have heard little from Killen since 1967, when witnesses at a federal trial testified that he had recruited men to kill Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner. The jury deadlocked on conspiracy charges against Killen by a vote of 11 to 1; the lone holdout later said she could not convict a preacher.

Killen, 79, will appear Oct. 9 to shake hands and pose for snapshots with fairgoers, said Richard Barrett, general counsel for the Nationalist Movement. Barrett befriended Killen this summer and persuaded him to make the appearance, hailing his efforts against communism and "the Negro revolution" in the United States.

Killen could not be reached for comment.

The announcement provoked dismay this week after the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., published an article about Barrett's plans. Gov. Haley Barbour on Thursday dismissed Barrett's organization as "certainly not representative of today's Mississippi," and at least one organization yanked its booth from the fair.

Fair authorities urged Mississippians to enjoy the event's attractions as usual. But some observers worried that Killen's appearance would stir up long-dormant anger over murders that the state never prosecuted; others thought he would highlight how far the state had come since then.

"He will be a curiosity, rightfully so," said David Sansing, a retired professor of history at the University of Mississippi. "He will be one of those people you see in the sideshow, or the freak show. The menagerie. I think people will gawk at him in amazement, and not in admiration."

Killen, who was 38 when the civil rights workers were murdered, has lived a quiet life since, refusing requests for interviews and preaching occasionally in area churches.

FBI documents released in 2000 described Killen as leader of the Neshoba County Ku Klux Klan and coordinator of the murders.

The three civil rights workers were arrested for speeding in Philadelphia, Miss. After they were released from jail, a mob of men followed them, shot them and buried their bodies in an earthen dam. The federal jury convicted seven men of conspiracy in the murders and acquitted seven others. Three trials, including Killen's, ended in mistrial. Mississippi has never tried anyone in the murders.

Killen has denied belonging to the Klan or playing any role in the crime.

In one of the few interviews he has given, to the Clarion-Ledger in 2002, Killen was asked what should happen to the killers of the civil rights workers: "I'm not going to say they were wrong," he said. "I don't believe in murder. I believe in self-defense."

Barrett, 60, is an advocate of eugenic sterilization, repeal of the Voting Rights Act and "eradication" of homosexuality. Barrett has organized booths at the Mississippi State Fair in the past.

He invited Killen to appear this year, saying it would be an "incomparable opportunity to set back and defeat communism."

"The Negros are talking about boycotting the fair," Barrett said. "My response is, 'Tyrants, go home. Cowards, go back.' I'm certainly not going to bow to those kinds of threats."

Fair officials were told by the state attorney general's office that they had no choice but to allow Barrett to set up a booth. If Killen does attend -- fair officials have not yet issued him a pass -- his presentation will be subject to strict rules. His opinions may only be voiced far from the fair's midway, within a 10-by-10 booth inside a building, said Michael Brinkley Jr., director of the Fair Commission.

Brinkley urged Mississippians to attend the fair, which will feature a 60-foot slide, an enclosed circus and musical attractions such as Kansas and K.C. and the Sunshine Band.

"He's one guy and he has his belief," Brinkley said. "We're thousands. If we let this guy stop this family fun that we have brought to this state for 143 years, he's won again."

But at least one group has withdrawn from the fair, not wishing to be associated with Barrett's booth in any way. Dani Edmonson of the Mississippi Organ Recovery Agency said that because her organization serves people of all races, "my reaction was, instantly, 'I cannot be a part of that.' "

Ben Chaney, who was 11 years old when his brother James Chaney was murdered, said Killen should be prosecuted, along with more powerful figures who "created the environment for the murders to take place." Chaney, who lives in New York, has never seen Killen in person.

"If I could afford to take a trip to Mississippi, I would go to the fair and I would go to where he is going to be," he said.

Jim Prince III, who has promoted racial reconciliation through the Philadelphia Coalition, said he hoped Killen's appearance at the fair would pressure state authorities to prosecute Killen for the murders. Outsiders should understand that Mississippi has left behind Barrett's brand of virulent racism, he said.

Prince, who is co-chairman of the coalition, said: "It's just these old ghosts that appear, these old relics."

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