Mississippi Burning: The murder case that set a US state alight

On Monday, 41 years after the deaths of three civil rights workers, 80-year-old Edgar Ray Killen will face trial, charged with murder. And just as the civil rights movement divided America, the case has split Killen's local community. Andrew Buncombe reports from Philadelphia, Mississippi
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The Independent US

The only evidence today of the arson that destroyed the Mt Zion United Baptist Church in Philadelphia, Mississippi, are some charred timbers embedded in the ground in front of the rebuilt building and the original bell that once called people to worship.

Other than that, the only obvious clues as to the church's troubled history are three names inscribed on a memorial plaque - James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. The plaque is essentially for tourists: in this part of Mississippi everyone is familiar with these names, which have resonated down the years, and everyone knows their link with this quiet church.

It was 41 years ago this month that the men, aged 21, 20 and 26 respectively, were murdered by members of the Ku-Klux-Klan as they helped black citizens register to vote during the so-called "Mississippi Freedom Summer". Their bodies were later discovered by the FBI, buried deep in the clay of an earthen dam 10 miles away.

On Monday, more than four decades after those murders added urgency to the civil rights movement and subsequently inspired the 1988 film Mississippi Burning, a sick and elderly man who was once allegedly a senior member of the Klan is to go on trial charged with the killings. Edgar Ray Killen, 80, a part-time preacher and sawmill owner who was previously tried in a 1967 hearing that resulted in a hung jury, has said he is innocent.

"Not guilty," he declared loudly when he appeared in court last January to be charged, dressed in a bright orange prison jumpsuit.

Yet the trial, scheduled to take place in the small, neat courthouse located in the centre of town, is about a lot more than simply proving whether this old man is guilty of murder. In the same way as the civil rights movement divided the US back in the Sixties, so this trial has equally split the people of Philadelphia and the surrounding area.

Some say it is vital that justice - however long delayed - is done if the community is to move on from what happened. Others - while condemning the killings - say a trial will simply refuel the antagonism that marked those times and denigrate the advances that have been made since then. And then, most disturbingly, there are those who wonder aloud whether for all the talk of a new South, things in Mississippi today are really that different from the time when the three men were murdered.

Jim Prince, the likeable publisher of the Neshoba Democrat, the town's weekly newspaper, which played an important role supporting demands for the reopening of the investigation, said the town was split at this "transitional period" in its history. "Whatever the outcome of this trial, we will have to live with it. Whatever the outcome, our community will be better off," said Mr Prince, whose predecessor, Stanley Dearman, led a long and principled stand against the Klan. "The community has done the right thing by calling for justice. If the outcome is Not Guilty so be it, he's not guilty. There will be some people who will go to their graves saying we should not have reopened it but we have done the right thing."

So much of that past focuses on the murder of the three activists - two white and one black - who had driven to the black Baptist church on the afternoon of 21 June 1964. Five days earlier the building had been set alight by members of the Klan, and church members had been beaten as they searched for Schwerner, a well-known activist hated by the Klansmen for his efforts to register black voters in the nearby town of Meridian. Despite the obvious danger, the three men wanted to see for themselves what had happened and to speak to members of the congregation.

But on their way back to Meridian via Philadelphia, they were stopped by the deputy sheriff and arrested "for speeding". Unknown to them, the officer who arrested them was himself a member of the Klan and, after locking up the men in the local jail - now an office building with a "For Rent" sign outside - he alerted other Klan members.

The men were released at 10.30pm that night but they did not get far. On a road south of town, they were pursued by two cars full of Klansmen. After a chase along a winding road, the activists were overtaken, seized and driven to the junction of two country tracks, no more than a mile or two from Mr Killen's house. There, at a place known as Rock Cut Road, they were shot dead from close range.

To get a first-hand insight into the passions and dark anger that this case arouses 41 years later, one need do nothing more than knock on the door of number 11340, Road 515, the same road on which Mr Killen lives and on which the men were killed. The house is located just a few hundred metres from the murder site and is listed as belonging to Morrice Mowdy, a man said to be a long-time friend of Mr Killen's.

When The Independent visited the house, seeking opinions on the upcoming trial, a small wiry man aged in his 70s or older launched an attack with a metal bar that resulted in injuries which required hospital treatment. "If that's what you're here for you can get away," he yelled, before reaching into a red pick-up truck and grabbing the piece of metal. The local sheriff's office - thankfully transformed from four decades ago - offered to press assault charges but the offer was declined.

At the hospital, a black security guard, offered this assessment. "If you think it's bad now, imagine what it was like back in the Sixties when these people were younger and stronger and if you had been my colour ..."

Mr Killen himself lives further along Road 515. In the garden in front of his house, there is a board with the words of the Ten Commandments. While he has always denied involvement in the killings, in the interviews he has given he has expressed little regret over the death of the three "communists" who were "threatening Mississippi's way of life". Mr Killen, who broke his legs in March while cutting a tree, declined to speak to The Independent but he said in an interview with a far-right website: "I have pastored churches all through Neshoba County for over 50 years. I am well thought of by most everyone."

Mr Killen was one of 18 local men originally charged over the killings. Seven, including the deputy sheriff, the Klan's "Imperial Wizard" Sam Bowers, and the trigger man, Wayne Roberts, were convicted. Eight were found not guilty. In three of the cases - including that of Mr Killen, who was described in court as a senior Klan organiser or "Kleagle" - the jury was unable to reach a verdict. At the time The New York Times described the guilty verdicts as "a measure of the quiet revolution that is taking place in southern attitudes", although a perhaps truer insight came from the trial judge, William Cox, a supporter of segregation. He imposed sentences of no more than 10 years and said : "They killed one nigger, one Jew, and a white man - I gave them all what I thought they deserved."

Mr Killen might not have been charged but for a comment by Bowers, who is serving a life sentence for a separate crime. In 1999 he told a state archivist in an interview that he had thwarted justice over the killings of the three men and that he did not mind going to jail because a fellow Klansman had got away with murder. The interview was supposed to have been private and released only after his death but the Clarion-Ledger newspaper got hold of a copy and published it, putting pressure on the authorities to reopen the case. A grand jury found there was sufficient evidence to charge Mr Killen.

The task of prosecuting Mr Killen has fallen to Mark Duncan, the district attorney for Neshoba County and a man who has grown up with its dark history. While he denies that the case has been brought to trial simply to try to heal the community's wounds, he hopes that will be the outcome.

"I look at the evidence," he said. "As far as the importance to the community, I think everybody will be glad to get it behind them. It's something that a lot of people would not want brought up. Not for the wrong reasons but they look at getting more negative publicity."

He said: "If we get some good publicity out of this it's a good thing, but that is not the motivation for bringing the case. I have tried real hard to treat this case like just like any other and that the evidence has to be your guide. But I'm also aware of the history of the case, you cannot help but be."

Driving around Philadelphia and retracing the journey the three activists took that afternoon, even driving out north of town to the lonely and deserted Bogue Chitto swamp where their burnt-out car was discovered, it is obvious that many people are worried about the upcoming trial. Few of the town's white residents who were approached wished to be interviewed. One man, probably aged in his 20s, who declined to be named, simply said: "Whoever did it, and I mean whoever, should be punished. But at the same time we are just starting to get over this and it's going to bring it all back up again."

By "this", of course, he meant the relationship between blacks and whites - a topic that many prefer not to discuss even though the subject is never far away. Some members of the black community say that while things have outwardly changed in Philadelphia, underlying racist attitudes still exist.

Leslie Rush, 61, was among those members of the Mt Zion church visited by the activists on the day they were killed. He remembers the three young men, roughly his age, coming to the home of his mother and taking notes. "Things have changed, but you can't see inside people's hearts and know what they are feeling or know what they are thinking," he said. "Things have changed but not because those people have changed, it is because they know they can no longer do those things any more. The younger generation will not put up with it and the black community is better prepared to protect itself."

One white resident who welcomed the attention the town is getting because of the trial is William Spell, a lawyer who works for the local Choctaw Indian tribe, which in recent years has seen its fortunes turned around by the development of a casino resort. Mr Spell said: "One of the things that concerns me is [that without the publicity] the world will think that Philadelphia has remained unchanged, but it has not. Philadelphia today is a model of racial harmony, except for a few people and those people are getting older."

He added: "I don't think something like [the murders] could happen today. People would stop it. The problem back then was that no one stopped it: a lot of people did not like it but they did not stop it."

While Philadelphia broods and awaits the trial, Carolyn Goodman has no doubts that it should go ahead. Now aged 89, she will be in court on Monday to face the man accused of murdering her son, Andrew, and his two friends. Ever since Andrew's death, she and her husband, now deceased, have worked to bring the killers to justice.

Speaking from her home in New York, she said: "It's very important to me and to my husband. I said to him, 'It's going to happen and we are going to work and get results'. He said, 'Baby, I believe you'. I said I would do everything in my power to make it happen."

She says she is not bitter but believes the trial will bring her a degree of peace. "Peace is justice and that is important too for all the good people.

"There are lots of wonderful people in the South and they are still around. It's like a barrel of apples: there are always some bad ones but they are not going to come out on top."