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'Still a Long Ways From Justice'

An arrest in the 1964 slayings of civil rights workers brings families new hope and old pain.

January 08, 2005|Josh Getlin and Elizabeth Mehren | Times Staff Writers

NEW YORK — At 11 years old, Ben Chaney lionized his older brother James. He believed he was immortal. Even when James vanished in Mississippi with fellow civil rights workers Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, Ben was certain James would come home alive.

"Never until his burial did I believe he could die," Chaney said.

On Friday, a widow, a brother and a mother spoke with love and pride of the three men who went to Mississippi to register black voters 40 years ago. When reputed Ku Klux Klan leader Edgar Ray Killen, 79, pleaded not guilty in their killings, it took these family members back to an era when the push for equality in the Deep South often clashed violently with racist hatred.

Ben Chaney, a 52-year-old paralegal here, said the arrest gave him a small semblance of hope -- a sentiment he termed "barely, partial optimism." But, he said, "We are still a long ways from justice."

At her apartment on the Upper West Side, Carolyn Goodman sat surrounded by pictures of her son -- a portrait of Andrew, photographs taken when he was a young man and snapshots of him as a child with brothers Jonathan and David. Goodman said Killen's arrest was good and bad news.

"Good because there might be some justice," said Goodman, 89. "Bad because you still don't know what's going to ultimately happen."

In Seattle, the widow of Michael Schwerner said she thought justice would be served only if the Killen trial provoked a larger discussion about race.

"Racism is the elephant in the living room of this country," said Rita Bender, 62. "And we pretend it does not exist. Until we acknowledge it, until we acknowledge the past, we are not moving forward."

Ben Chaney runs a foundation named for his brother and a summer voter-registration program modeled after the effort that cost James his life. Chaney said he spent much of Friday morning on the phone with his 83-year-old mother, who lives in New Jersey. Fannie Chaney kept hoping that Killen would turn state's evidence against eight others linked to the killings in earlier investigations, her son said.

"I had to tell her, 'Mama, they have the evidence against the rest of them, it's whether or not they are going to use it,' " Chaney said. "It's like there is a void, because not all of the murderers have been indicted. And I don't think it is going to be fulfilled with just this prosecution."

Mindful of the significance of the term, he continued: "This is going to be a whitewash. They are going to use the most unrepentant racist as the scapegoat, leave the others alone because they are more powerful, more wealthy and more influential -- and then move on."

Chaney said the death of his brother "defined and controlled" his life. He pursued a life in social justice because "the best way to remember my brother and his companions is to do what they were doing."

The expectation that no one would ever be called to reckon for the killings weighed heavily on his family, Chaney said. James Chaney was the sole black victim in the 1964 killings. Fannie Chaney was a little girl when her uncle was lynched by the Klan. No one was charged or prosecuted in that killing, leading her to believe her son's murder would go unpunished as well.

"For 40 years," Ben said, "she thought a prosecution in this case would never happen, because in Mississippi, you don't prosecute white people for murdering black people."

While calling 40 years an "outrageous" period of time to wait for a possible conviction, he said: "That is the thing about justice. It can take 100 years, but I believe eventually it catches up with you."

Forty summers ago, Carolyn Goodman recalled, her son drove down West 86th Street, past the building she lives in now, and went with friends to Mississippi.

"I didn't expect he'd never come back, that's for sure," she said. "I knew he was going into a world of risk. But I also knew that my husband and I had lived in a world of risk, we lived through all the terrible 'isms' of our youth, and we were willing to risk our lives -- but not our children's lives."

But Goodman said her husband cautioned her: "Our children know what our thinking is, but now they have to take their own path. And if Andy wanted to go to Mississippi, that was up to him. He has to take that risk."

She said the family thought the worst thing that might happen was that Andy would end up in jail and his parents would have to bail him out.

On Friday, she said she might like to be alone in a room with Killen, to ask what was on his mind the evening her son died.

"All these years, I've been trying to understand what caused him to be part of a group of people who murdered three innocent young men," she said. "Could he tell me?"

Bender, who later remarried, is an attorney as well as a mother and a grandmother. She said that for her, the case was even more important than convicting Killen or anyone else involved in the murders.

"In many ways, those men were pawns," she said. "They were manipulated by a state apparatus that was determined to preserve a racist society by whatever means. That doesn't mean they are not individually liable for their acts, but there is a lot more liability and a lot more responsibility than just them.

"And so for me," she went on, "the importance of this case is to use it to talk about the result of racism and state-sponsored terror."

Bender accompanied her young husband to Mississippi that summer of 1964, as a volunteer for CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality. In her job application, she wrote of her hope "to someday pass on to the children we may have a world containing more respect for the dignity and worth of all men than that world which was willed to us."

The sadness and the injustice of the murders in Mississippi have remained with her, Bender said. But she still harbors that hope.

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