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Country Preacher to Be Tried as 1964 Murder Mastermind

Many neighbors see Edgar Ray Killen as a harmless old man. But prosecutors say he was behind three civil rights workers' Klan slayings.

June 12, 2005|Ellen Barry | Times Staff Writer

UNION, Miss. — Edgar Ray Killen likes to chat. This is the thing his friends and neighbors note about him: his famous, relentless, guileless talkativeness.

They tell stories about fishing trips that had to be canceled when a quick exchange with Killen, 80, stretched into an hourlong huddle. They describe impromptu lectures delivered to an audience of four at Wal-Mart. Some admit a tendency to scatter when they see him coming.

"He is," said Kenny Joe Bankston, a sawmill operator and neighbor, "flat hard to get away from."

In a trial that begins Monday in Philadelphia, Miss., prosecutors are expected to paint a picture of a much younger and more menacing man. They will make the case that Killen was the leader of the Neshoba County Ku Klux Klan and planned the June 1964 murders of Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney.

The three civil rights workers were overtaken by a group of men and shot to death on a highway outside of town. Federal agents swarmed into town to investigate their disappearances, and 44 days later, the victims' bodies were found buried in an earthen dam.

Killen was never placed at the crime scene, but prosecutors argued that it didn't matter: That summer, the lean 39-year-old country preacher, a man who had been practically unknown in Philadelphia, had the power to make things happen in Neshoba County without lifting a finger.

"It was a measure of how strange the times were that a person like him could be launched to the fore," said Philip Dray, coauthor of "We Are Not Afraid," a history of the slayings. "I've talked to lots of local people, and he ... was considered a hillbilly, really."

Killen was tried on federal conspiracy charges in 1967, but the jury deadlocked 11 to 1; the lone holdout declared that she couldn't ever convict a preacher.

A series of high-profile civil rights-era murders have been reopened since the late 1980s, and pressure gradually mounted to address the Neshoba County killings, which were the basis for the movie "Mississippi Burning." Although a number of men originally tried in the case are still alive, a grand jury in January indicted only Killen, on three counts of murder. Killen has denied involvement in the slayings and the Klan.

Killen has used a wheelchair since breaking both legs in a March logging accident.

His attorney, James D. McIntyre of Jackson, said Killen's "spirits are high. He's still optimistic about the case." McIntyre, who defended Sheriff Lawrence Rainey in the 1967 trial, said the state of Mississippi had made a mistake by reopening the case.

"They sat idly by for 40 years, and he was denied the jury of his peers, because his peers are dead," McIntyre said. "The state of Mississippi has seen fit to go backward rather than forward."

In 1967, Killen was one of 18 men tried on federal charges of conspiracy, and two FBI informants took the stand to testify that he organized the crime. The most visible of the defendants were Rainey and his deputy, Cecil Price -- tobacco-chewing Southern lawmen who evoked Rod Steiger in "In the Heat of the Night."

There was one moment, though, when Killen's personality stood out. When a black minister, Charles Johnson, took the stand to discuss the victims, Killen instructed his attorney to ask the minister this question: "Now, let me ask you if you and Mr. Schwerner didn't advocate to try to get young male Negroes to sign statements agreeing to rape a white woman once a week during the hot summer of 1964?"

With that question, observers said, the air in the courtroom shifted. The judge, who shared his neighbors' distaste for the civil rights workers, swung his focus to Killen and warned that he was "not going to allow a farce to be made of this trial." Reporters commented that the judge got angry that day and stayed angry through the end of the trial.

The trial ended with seven convictions. But Killen was not among those convicted. He was, Dray said, "the biggest fish that got away."

Killen retreated into private life in Union, 15 miles south of the Philadelphia city limits, near land that was settled by his great-great-great-grandfather, who in 1832 opened up a country store in what was then Indian territory.

It is an isolated area, and in the years after the Civil War, migration in and out of the county stopped for almost a century. Families stayed put and intermarried. The environment was tight-knit, deeply democratic, contemptuous of elites. "We're country folks," said Killen's brother, J.D., 63. "We may be poor, but we've always been clean, and we mind our own business."

Killen is one of the last men in the area to operate a mobile, gasoline-powered "peckerwood sawmill" -- "a dying breed," said Bankston, who regularly processes lumber for him.

His neighbors regard him as hardworking and friendly, and say he interacts as comfortably with black people as white.

"You couldn't ask for anybody more honest as far as business dealings," said Bankston. "I think if you needed help he would help you."

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