Trial to Begin in 1964 Killing of Rights Workers

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Edgar Ray Killen goes on trial Monday, charged with orchestrating the 1964 murders of three civil rights workers in Mississippi. It would be the second time Killen, 80, faces a jury on charges related to the case, but the first time murder charges have been filed.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

In Philadelphia, Mississippi, this week, a reputed Ku Klux Klan leader goes on trial for murder in the 1964 slayings of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. The three civil rights workers had been registering black voters in Neshoba County. Prosecutors say 80-year-old Edgar Ray Killen orchestrated the elimination of the three young men, two white and one African-American. This is the first time the state has brought murder charges in the four-decade-old crime. NPR's Debbie Elliott will be covering the trial, and she joins us now.

Hi, Debbie.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT reporting:

Hi, Jennifer.

LUDDEN: Can you remind us what happened to these three civil rights workers?

ELLIOTT: Well, this was June of 1964. It was known as Freedom Summer, and hundreds of young people from around the country had gone to Mississippi to help register black voters. Now Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman had been working with this small church, the Mount Zion Church, just on the outskirts of Philadelphia, Mississippi, in Neshoba County and registering voters there. So there was this meeting at the church on a Sunday, and the Klan had been monitoring what was going on there. Klansmen waited outside for the local parishioners to come out of that meeting, beat up church members and burned the church.

The three civil rights workers heard about that and drove to the Mount Zion Church to investigate that night. That's exactly what Klan members had hoped would happen. When they got there, the deputy sheriff in Neshoba County, Cecil Price, pulled them over for speeding and put these three men in jail. He later released them. And as they were driving out of town after being released from jail, they were pulled over by a gang of Klansmen. They were pulled out of the vehicle, they were shot to death on a remote country road and then their bodies were taken elsewhere and buried beneath an earthen dam.

Now for 44 days after that happened, nobody knew where these civil rights workers were. And, in fact, at the time, a lot of state and local officials were saying, you know, that nothing had happened to them. This was just a big hoax, a Communist hoax, to stir up trouble in Mississippi. And the whole time that the search for them was going on really focused attention from the national media on what was happening in the South, that there was violent opposition to civil rights, and it really got people's attention.

LUDDEN: Now Edgar Ray Killen was put on trial in connection with these murders back in 1967. Tell us about that federal case against him.

ELLIOTT: Right. Now that was not a murder trial, and that's the big difference here. There was an FBI investigation in the 1960s, but the state never prosecuted anyone. So the federal government came in and filed federal conspiracy and civil rights charges against 18 men in the case. Seven of them were convicted, including the deputy sheriff, Cecil Price, but the most any of them spent in jail was six years.

Eight others were acquitted, and three ended up with mistrials, including Edgar Ray Killen. That hung jury was the result of one woman who said she was not able to convict a preacher, and Killen at the time was known as a local Baptist minister; people called him Brother Killen. He is 80 now. There is no statute of limitations on murder, and that's why this case is brought. Now Killen, of course, has pleaded not guilty to all three of the murder charges.

LUDDEN: But people have been calling for the state of Mississippi to do this for a long time. Why now? What changed?

ELLIOTT: Well, I think authorities will tell you it's the climate, that back in the '60s, a lot of people who might have been witnesses or informants in this case were either sympathetic to the Klan or they were terrified of it. Now that's not so much the case and it's easier to get cooperation. In fact, the reason this case was reopened in the first place is that Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price had begun to talk to authorities. They actually have somebody on the inside who is starting to describe what had happened that evening. That helped get authorities back into this case.

LUDDEN: And how are people in Mississippi reacting to the trial?

ELLIOTT: You know, there's mixed reaction, particularly in the town of Philadelphia. There's a sense of relief for a lot of people there. A local coalition had been pressuring the state to do the right thing and prosecute, saying there was this sort of sense of collective guilt in this community that nobody had ever punished those who were responsible for this horrible crime and that it was time for that to happen.

On the other side, you have people saying, you know, this is a political persecution, that trying to heal Mississippi's old wounds by trying an 80-year-old man isn't gonna do the trick, that, you know, he's no threat to anybody and it really isn't going to change anything.

LUDDEN: NPR's Debbie Elliott. We'll be hearing more from you about the trial tomorrow on "Morning Edition." Thanks so much.

ELLIOTT: Thank you, Jennifer.

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