Mississippi Klansmen Finally Gets His Day In Court
Octogenarian Baptist preacher Edgar Ray Killen was wheeled into a Mississippi courtroom, escorted, literally, by a card-carrying Ku Klux Klansmen, to attend the selection of the jury who’ll decide his fate for the murder of three civil rights workers more than 40 years ago.
Joseph J. Harper of Cordele, GA, gutsily handed out business cards identifying himself as the Imperial Wizard of the American White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan Inc. Killen’s lawyer, James McIntyre, wasn’t exactly thrilled with the wizard’s appearance, calling the Klan “a hate group.” Mr. McIntyre will be stating the obvious for the foreseeable future.
A story immortalized in the movie, “Mississippi Burning,” Killen will stand trial for his role in the 1964 murder of two white New Yorkers, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney a black man from Meridian, Mississippi. The three men, all in their twenties at the time, were participating in “Freedom Summer,” a movement to register southern black voters.
On June 21, the three men were arrested on a speeding violation and were placed in the Neshoba County jail. While detained, Killen informed the Ku Klux Klan that the police “had three of the civil rights workers locked up, and [they] had to hurry and get there and [they] were to pick them up and tear their butts up,” according to Klansman James Jordan’s testimony in the 1967 trial.
That trial wasn’t for murder, however, it was for violating the men’s civil rights. Killen was acquitted of those charges by an 11-1 verdict because one juror “couldn’t convict a preacher.”
After the sheriff’s deputies released the civil rights workers from jail, 20 Klansmen followed them in two cars and forced their car off the road. Goodman, Schwemer, and Chaney were beaten and shot at close range. Their bodies were buried under 15 feet of dirt, bulldozed under an earthen dam.
After a 44-day search, the FBI recovered the bodies. No one was charged with the murders. Seven of the 18 Klansmen were convicted of violating their civil rights and served, at most, six years.
Killen, however, walked and has been free for forty years. The US Attorney’s office in Mississippi ended a renewed investigation last year, reopened the case, and has brought the charges against Killen, who is still a part-time Baptist preacher.
Neshoba County District Attorney Marc Duncan said prosecutors presented the case to the grand jury and allowed them to decide who should be indicted.
“After their deliberations, they decided to indict Mr. Killen and only Mr. Killen,” he said. “That was a grand jury decision.”
Killen’s defense attorneys asked to delay proceedings to give Killen time to recover from breaking both his legs in a “tree cutting accident.” Circuit Court Judge Marcus Gordon, making no allowances for karma’s debt collection, denied the motion.
The trial is expected to last no longer than two weeks once a jury is selected from a pool of 400 in the small town of Philadelphia, MS.