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Trial Testimony About Klan Leaves Town Divided

A former mayor's comments expose cracks in a tightknit Mississippi community.

June 23, 2005|Ellen Barry | Times Staff Writer

PHILADELPHIA, Miss. — Harlan Majure hasn't heard from his sister Carolyn in the last few days.

They live about a mile and a half from each other, and in two weeks they're due to share a family cabin at the Neshoba County Fair. If anything between them has changed, neither can say what it is. He hasn't called her, and she hasn't called him.

By Wednesday, the media had begun to withdraw, leaving the people of Philadelphia alone with one another. The trial of Edgar Ray Killen, who was found guilty of manslaughter Tuesday in the 1964 murders of three civil rights workers, has brought out divisions that are rarely visible in this interconnected community.

Few were more conscious of that fact than Majure, a two-term mayor who angered many of his neighbors Monday by saying during cross-examination that, "as far as I know, the Klan was a peaceful organization."

In her cool, book-lined home, Carolyn Dearman was watching her brother's testimony on television with her husband. Stanley Dearman, former editor of the Neshoba Democrat, has spent decades crusading against the Ku Klux Klan and was one of the strongest voices calling for the state to reopen the case. After watching Majure testify, Dearman recalled, he turned to his wife and said, "He has demolished everything I've been trying to do with this community."

In Neshoba County, an isolated place with a static population, it seems nearly everyone is related, either by blood or by proximity. Judge Marcus Gordon, who is scheduled to sentence Killen today, grew up down the road from him, and his parents attended the church where Killen preached. A year after the civil rights workers were killed, Killen preached at a double funeral for Gordon's parents.

People here are so tightly connected that they have learned to blanket divisive topics with politeness.

When Majure's comments about the Klan were broadcast to the world, his friends and neighbors had three options: to support him, condemn him or avoid the subject.

Jim Prince III, editor of the Neshoba Democrat, decided not to worry about being tactful.

"That element is fossilized," said Prince, who has been close to Majure's family since he was born. "I put them into the category of 'We just need a few more good funerals.' When those people are dead and gone, hallelujah. Let them die and answer to their maker."

Prince said that he probably would pay Majure a visit later on to work out their differences. He had heard Majure was angry because Prince called his remark "ignorant" during an appearance on CNN. When Prince arrived at the newspaper office after taping that program, three people had called to cancel their subscriptions.

"Ultimately," Prince said, "we have to live in the same town."

On Wednesday morning, the cameramen had disappeared from Philadelphia's downtown. Rather than staking out the courtroom, Prince chased a fire engine down the street to take pictures of a burning boarding house. Stanley Dearman, "liberated" by Killen's conviction, was recovering from a post-verdict celebration that featured a bottle of Dom Perignon. And on Pecan Street, Majure's real estate office was open for business.

The former mayor sat cheerfully behind his desk in a one-man office stocked with Christian devotionals, Polaroid photos, laminated yard signs, hard candies, windshield wiper fluid, Q-tips and peanuts. At 75, he doesn't sell much real estate anymore; he keeps a paperback copy of the Bible on his desk, and has just read through it for the third time.

When a stranger knocked, he knew what it was about.

"I've made a statement that has upset the whole world," said Majure, insisting that his remarks on the stand had been misinterpreted. What he had described, he said, was the Klan he heard about during the Great Depression, when his father ran a country store.

In those days, he said, the Klan focused its efforts on whites -- chiefly men who cheated on their wives, drank too much or failed to support their children. Back then, a warning from the Klan was enough to prompt a change in behavior, he said.

"The Klan would pay them a visit," he said. "The Klan would tell a man to straighten up, and if he didn't, they would whip the devil out of him. They whipped more white people than black people. Nobody knows that about the Klan."

Majure said neither he nor anyone in his family had been active in the Klan, and he grew less approving when the Klan turned its focus to race relations in the 1960s. People in Philadelphia, he said, "know I don't have a prejudiced bone in my body."

But he faulted the civil rights movement as interfering with Mississippi communities. "They were trying to force something on us," he said. "We weren't ready for it."

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