Mississippi Civil Rights Trial Testimony Begins

Jurors in the trial of Edgar Ray Killen hear from the first witnesses in the case of three civil rights workers murdered in 1964. The trial is being held in Philadelphia, Miss., near the site of the murders.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Testimony got off to a slow start today in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where a reputed Ku Klux Klan leader is on trial for the murders of three civil rights workers in 1964. Edgar Ray Killen is accused of orchestrating the Klan attack that killed James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT reporting:

Out of the jury's presence, the 80-year-old Killen was removed by stretcher and ambulance from the Neshoba County Courthouse not long after the opening witness took the stand in his murder trial. Killen was being treated for high blood pressure at a local hospital. Testimony was cut short for the day, and Killen was not in the courtroom for the sometimes emotional testimony from the state's first witness, Rita Bender, widow of victim Michael Schwerner. She testified that the couple moved from New York to Meridian, Mississippi, in 1964 to work in the civil rights movement and was not given a warm welcome.

Ms. RITA BENDER (Widow of Michael Schwerner): There were constant threats. People used vile language to me if I answered the phone, or calls saying that my husband was dead or I better watch out because he was going to be killed.

ELLIOTT: Bender says her husband and James Chaney, who she called J.E., had been working in Neshoba County, talking with members of the Mt. Zion Church about setting up a summer school for black children and having voter registration workshops. Soon thereafter, Bender said, members of the congregation were beaten and the church was burned.

Ms. BENDER: He and J.E. both felt that they had a responsibility to the people who had put themselves at risk, and that was why they decided they had to go back and see those people.

ELLIOTT: Bender says she saw her husband for the last time the morning he left to return to Mt. Zion Church.

Ms. BENDER: Around three or four in the morning of June 20th, Mickey got up, he got dressed, he kissed me goodbye and he left.

ELLIOTT: The next night, Bender testified, she learned that Mickey, Chaney and Andrew Goodman never returned from their trip to Neshoba County. Several days later, she said, authorities found their burned-out station wagon in the Bogue Chitto swamp.

Ms. BENDER: I think it really hit me for the first time that they were dead.

ELLIOTT: Bender said she was with Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party leader Fannie Lou Hamer when she got the news.

Ms. BENDER: She just wrapped her arms around me, and the two of us had our faces together, and both of us had--our tears were mingling with each other, and we cried.

ELLIOTT: Under cross-examination, Bender admitted that she had no personal knowledge linking Edgar Ray Killen to her husband's murder. She said she had never even seen him until this trial began. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Philadelphia, Mississippi.

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