Town braces for trial in 1964 civil-rights slayings
Sunday, June 12, 2005
PHILADELPHIA, Miss. -- Hicks. Rednecks. Racists. People who live in this town of 7,300 have heard the epithets slung their way for decades.
And many -- black and white -- cringe as they anticipate how the world will view their town when reputed Ku Klux Klansman and part-time preacher Edgar Ray Killen goes on trial Monday in the 1964 murders of three civil rights workers.
"People make it sound like it's a hick town. It's not," said Bryon Whitley, a white 21-year-old who works in a music store on the downtown square, just across from the red brick Neshoba County Courthouse.
The murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner helped focus the nation's attention on the struggle to register black voters in the segregated South. Chaney was a black Mississippian. Goodman and Schwerner were white Northerners.
They disappeared the night of June 21, 1964, when they were run off an isolated road nine miles south of Philadelphia. They were beaten and shot to death and their bodies were found 44 days later, buried in an earthen dam several miles to the west.
The case became symbolized by photos of the burned hulk of the civil rights workers' station wagon after it was dragged from the swamp where it was ditched after the killings -- and of the smirking Klansmen who went on trial in 1967, not on state murder charges but on federal charges of violating the workers' civil rights.
Killen, now 80, is the only person ever indicted on murder charges in the notorious case that was depicted in the 1988 movie "Mississippi Burning." His indictment in January came more than five years after the investigation was reopened. He walked free in 1967 after one juror reportedly said she couldn't vote to convict a preacher.
Many in Philadelphia, which is 75 percent white and 12 percent black, fear Killen's trial will attract a circus of white-sheeted racists. At least one Georgia Klansman contacted the sheriff months ago to say he wanted to hold a demonstration.
Resident Joann Johnson, who is black, doesn't want the trial to stir up bad feelings. Johnson, now 42, was a toddler when the civil rights workers disappeared.
Strolling on the downtown square one day last week with her daughters, ages 8 and 2, Johnson acknowledged that Philadelphia has its share of racial problems. But she thinks most of the tension is limited to the older generations. Johnson said one of her closest friends is Killen's stepdaughter-in-law.
"My children call her 'Aunt,"' Johnson said.
Jury selection for Killen's trial starts Monday. Summons were issued to more than 400 people. Attorneys say opening arguments could start by Wednesday or Thursday, and the trial itself could last two weeks.
Circuit Judge Marcus Gordon denied a defense motion to delay the trial to give Killen more time to recover from osteoarthritis that was aggravated when both of his legs were broken in a tree-cutting accident in March.
Whitley, the young man who works in the music store, said that while the killings were wrong he sees no point in the state prosecuting anyone now, especially an 80-year-old man.
"Just let the issue die," Whitley said. "They should've done it sooner instead of waiting 'til now."
But others applaud prosecutors for trying to resolve the murder cases. Some are frustrated that it took four decades to reach this point and some don't understand why Killen was the only one indicted.
"If he's guilty, he didn't kill those boys by himself. He had help," said 34-year-old Elizabeth Coburn, who lives just down the street from Mount Nebo Missionary Baptist Church.
During the Freedom Summer of 1964, the church was a gathering spot for civil rights workers. It has a granite marker for Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner.
Because of her friendship with Killen's stepdaughter-in-law, Johnson has mixed feelings. While she wants to see justice done, she said she's praying for her friend -- and for her community.
"We have a great town," Johnson said. "I just hope things don't rip us in half."