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The Nation

Arrest Made in 1964 Civil Rights Killings

A Mississippi man, 80, faces murder charges in the notorious deaths of three young activists.

January 07, 2005|Ellen Barry | Times Staff Writer

ATLANTA — Edgar Ray Killen, a preacher and reputed Ku Klux Klan leader, was arrested Thursday in Mississippi on murder charges in the deaths 40 years ago of three young civil rights workers whose bullet-riddled bodies were found buried in an earthen dam.

The arrest came after a Neshoba County, Miss., grand jury heard testimony about the 1964 slayings of Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney, who were killed by a mob of local men the day after they arrived in the small town of Philadelphia, Miss.

The state never charged anyone with the killings.

All day, word of the grand jury proceedings leaked out across Philadelphia, a town of 7,300 that has struggled with the legacy of the killings. It is where the slayings occurred, where Killen lives and where the grand jury convened.

In New York, Goodman's 89-year-old mother said she believed Killen coordinated the killings. "I certainly hope that justice will be done," Carolyn Goodman said. "I knew all along that these men would be apprehended. I think they knew it too."

Killen, 80, has denied any role in the crime. He was tried on federal conspiracy charges in 1967, but the jury deadlocked on a vote of 11 to 1; the lone holdout later said she could not convict a preacher.

Officers from the Neshoba County Sheriff's Department arrested Killen without incident at his home on three counts of murder, a spokesman said. He is being held without bail.

The crime, which was dramatized in the film "Mississippi Burning," became one of the most infamous episodes of the civil rights era. Goodman, 20, Chaney, 21, and Schwerner, 24, freshly trained in voter registration techniques, drove into Philadelphia on June 20, 1964.

The next day, Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price arrested them and took them to the county jail in Philadelphia. At 10 p.m., Price released the three men. Their station wagon was overtaken by a group of men on a rural road and all three were killed.

After the state refused to bring murder charges, the then-governor of Mississippi, Paul Johnson, asked federal investigators to look into the case. Ultimately, 18 men were tried on federal civil rights charges. Seven were convicted, serving sentences of three to 10 years.

Killen, who was 38 at the time of the killings, was described as the mob's ringleader in FBI documents released in 2000. James Jordan, an FBI informant, testified that Killen approached him at a restaurant in Meridian, Miss., saying "they had three civil rights workers in Philadelphia and that they needed their asses tore up," according to the FBI records.

Since the 1967 federal trial, Killen has refused requests for interviews and has preached occasionally in Mississippi churches. Last summer, a white supremacist announced that Killen would appear at the Mississippi State Fair, shaking hands and posing for pictures, but the appearance was canceled.

Killen is one of eight men still alive among the 18 who originally faced conspiracy charges, the Mississippi Clarion-Ledger reported Thursday.

Another is Sam Bowers, who was a leader of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Bowers is serving a life sentence for ordering the 1966 killing of Vernon Dahmer Jr., a civil rights leader, in Hattiesburg, Miss. Others include Pete Harris, Jimmy Snowden, Billy Wayne Posey, Richard Willis and Olen Burrage, the newspaper reported.

In Philadelphia, Fenton DeWeese, a lawyer, glimpsed one of the elderly witnesses -- a retired highway patrolman -- waiting outside the grand jury room, and knew the rumors of pending indictments were true.

"The hairs on the back of my neck were standing up," DeWeese said. "I'm still kind of floating."

James D. McIntyre, a Jackson, Miss., lawyer representing one of the men targeted by the state's investigation, said prosecutors risked opening old wounds and turning the clock back on years of racial reconciliation.

"This is a bad day for the state of Mississippi, targeting cases that occurred 40 years ago," said McIntyre, who would not identify his client. "They're probably spending one and a half million dollars a year to prosecute 80-year-old guys who are not a threat to society. You're trying to bring comfort to a few, and you're going to hurt the masses."

David Sansing, a retired professor of history at the University of Mississippi, said the arrest would stir up controversy, and that some in the state would argue against dredging up the past. He described his own mood as "elated."

"I know someone is going to ask me, 'Is it good for our image?' And I'll say I don't know, but it's good for our soul," Sansing said. "Those people in Philadelphia are trying to do right, and I am very proud of them. They are trying to do right."

Killen and any others indicted in the killings were to be arraigned at 11 a.m. today. Neshoba County Dist. Atty. Mark Duncan would not comment on the case, but said the grand jury had finished its work late Thursday.

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