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Trial Begins in '64 Civil Rights Killings

Jury selection starts in Philadelphia, Miss., in the murder case against Edgar Ray Killen, 80. Some residents fear racial tensions will flare.

June 14, 2005|John-Thor Dahlburg and Jenny Jarvie | Times Staff Writers

PHILADELPHIA, Miss. — With downtown streets barricaded and many residents staying indoors, Edgar Ray Killen, 80, entered the red-brick courthouse here in a wheelchair Monday to stand trial in the slayings of three young civil rights workers four decades ago.

The Baptist preacher, sawmill operator and reputed member of the Ku Klux Klan is the only person charged with murder in the 1964 killings of James E. Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael H. Schwerner.

The deaths of Chaney, a black Mississippian, and Goodman and Schwerner, two Northern whites, attracted intense attention to the violent struggle then underway to register black voters in the segregated South. The notorious killings were later dramatized in a Hollywood movie, "Mississippi Burning."

For years, many people in this lumber town in the hills of eastern Mississippi thought it was best to let unpleasant memories of the civil rights era fade. Some now worry that Killen's trial, which could last two weeks, may whip up racial tensions. But as reporters and civil rights activists descended on the small town, some residents said they welcomed the trial, which will be shown on Court TV.

"This is healing," said Angie Tullos, 44, as she gazed at the two-story Neshoba County Courthouse from her downtown clothing store. "They should have done it years ago."

In 1967, the U.S. government charged 18 men with violating the rights of the slain civil rights workers. Seven men were convicted, but Killen, who was accused of having assembled the Klansmen to carry out the kidnapping and killings, was released after an all-white jury deadlocked 11 to 1. The holdout later said she could not convict a preacher.

None of those convicted on federal civil rights charges served more than six years in prison. If found guilty in a state court of murder, Killen could spend the rest of his life in prison.

Killen has pleaded not guilty. In a 1999 interview with the Clarion-Ledger newspaper of Jackson, Miss., he denied having belonged to the Klan.

On Monday morning, approximately 120 members of the jury pool, a third of which is black, were ushered through the courthouse's side entrance. Their mood seemed somber.

Outside the courthouse, James McIntyre, Killen's defense lawyer, said it would be "extremely difficult" to pick a jury without fixed opinions and capable of judging events more than 40 years old.

"Everybody in the world has known about this case through the news media, books and hearsay," McIntyre said.

Also, Killen's lawyer said, "he is not being tried by his peers. His peers have died. These people weren't around at the time."

Nevertheless, McIntyre predicted that the jury would vote to acquit.

The sidewalks in Philadelphia's center were noticeably deserted. A lone black protester carried a large sign that read: "Killen and Klan and Kind represent 66.6% of Mississippi."

As the frail-looking Killen arrived at the courthouse, he was met by a man who identified himself as Joseph J. Harper, Imperial Wizard of the American White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. On Sunday, Harper, wearing a cap embossed with the Klan logo, had been among the guests at Killen's modest ranch house.

"If there's anything I can do for you, you tell me," he said Monday as he shook Killen's hand. The accused, who was escorted between two magnolia trees and up a ramp into the courthouse, looked straight ahead and said nothing.

In the summer of 1964, tensions were high as white middle-class students headed to Mississippi to help African Americans register to vote. The front page of Philadelphia's newspaper, the Neshoba Democrat, warned: "Outsiders who come in here and try to stir up trouble should be dealt with in a manner they won't forget."

After Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner drove into Philadelphia on the morning of June 21, 1964, to inspect the ruins of a black church firebombed by Klansmen, they were arrested for speeding and jailed for several hours. According to testimony in the federal trial, the sheriff notified Killen, who allegedly arranged for two carloads of Klansmen to tail the victims, pull them over and kill them.

Forty-four days after the three men arrived in Philadelphia, their bullet-ridden bodies were found buried 15 feet below an earthen dam.

Two years later, when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led 300 people through Philadelphia's courthouse square to mark the anniversary of the civil rights workers' deaths, white townspeople attacked the procession with hoes, broomsticks and ax handles.

"This is a terrible town," King said. "The worst I've seen."

Some younger residents of Philadelphia admitted Monday to having to struggle to comprehend the way things once were. "Sometimes I look around and think: That happened here," said Teresa Pace, 40, co-owner of Stribland Printing, who was born a year after the killings.

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