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Mississippi Burning

John Simkin

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Forty years after three civil rights workers were killed on a dirt road in Mississippi on a night that came to symbolise the racial hate of the American south, an elderly leader of the Ku Klux Klan appeared in court yesterday to be formally charged with their murder.

In proceedings interrupted by a bomb threat, Edgar Ray Killen, appeared handcuffed and in an orange prison jump suit to plead not guilty to three counts of murder.

Now 79, Killen was a preacher and a local Klan leader in Neshoba County, Mississippi when the killings took place in 1964.

The FBI identified him as the ringleader of the gang that ran the three civil rights workers off of a lonely road, killed them, and hid their corpses in an earthen dam.

For civil rights activists in the town of Philadelphia, Mississippi, the case against Killen was a bitter-sweet moment.

"If you believe in God you always know you have to wait," said Jewel McDonald, who was a teenager that summer, and whose mother and brother were beaten outside their black church only days before the murders.

She lamented the 39-year delay in prosecuting the killers of the three civil rights workers, but added she was happy that justice was finally being done.

The immediate target of the mob's murderous rampage on that night in 1964 was Michael Schwerner, 24, a white New Yorker and an experienced organiser, who was investigating the burning of the black church and the attack on Ms McDonald's mother.

James Chaney, 21, an African-American from Mississippi, and Andrew Goodman, 20, a New Yorker who had arrived in Neshoba County barely a day before, also died. Chaney was beaten to death; the two white men were each killed with a single shot to the chest.

The murders, which were dramatised in the 1988 film Mississippi Burning, loomed over an era of lynch mobs, cross burnings and church bombings.

They sealed the state's reputation as a haven for racists - as did the authority's refusal to bring criminal charges for four decades. But the killings also prompted an outpouring of support for the civil rights movement.

After intervention from the federal government, Mr Killen and 18 others were put on trial for civil rights violations in 1967.

Seven men, including the county's deputy sheriff, Cecil Price, received jail terms, but Mr Killen went free after a lone member of the jury admitted she could not stomach the idea of sending a preacher to prison.

And a small town struggled with the legacy of those murders. For the town's African-American residents, that meant living in a state of constant fear.

"It was a scary time growing up down here, not knowing if you were looking at someone who did it, and you didn't know," Ms McDonald said. "The fear was always there. When I went away, I tried to block it, but every time I talk about it, I go into tears because I see my mum and brother beaten, and all that stuff comes back. I think a lot of people are still afraid because people weren't talking."

A year ago, however, a newly elected state attorney general, Jim Hood, reopened the long, cold investigation into the killings and decided there was enough evidence to go ahead with charges.

Yesterday, vindicating long years of campaigning by a multiracial coalition known as the Philadelphia Committee, Mr Killen was at last charged with murder. Seven other men implicated in the murders are still alive, and local authorities said further charges were expected.

For Fenten DeWeese, a local lawyer and a member of the Philadelphia Committee who was in court yesterday, news of Mr Killen's arrest on Thursday arrived as a revelation.

"It was like the hair stood up on the back of my neck," he said. "I was 15 years old when it happened, and as a lifelong resident it's been a very dominating historical fact. This was domestic terrorism what happened here, and this community has been struggling with this ever since."

In the view or Mr DeWeese and Ms McDonald, the state's effort to bring Mr Killen to justice is evidence of a new Mississippi that has emerged from the painful detritus of the old racist order. Not everyone in Neshoba County agrees - or even accepts the idea of change.

"After 40 years to come back and do something like this is ridiculous ... like a nightmare," Billy Wayne Posey, one of the men convicted at the civil rights trial in 1967, told the Associated Press.

But others believe putting Mr Killen on trial is essential to the town's healing and for laying a shameful past to rest.

"The murder is older than me," said Jennifer Hathorne, who helps organise the annual memorial to the three murdered civil rights activists at the Mount Zionist United Methodist church, the successor to the church destroyed by racists in 1964.

"People have passed on now, but they would be proud to see that this is happening after all these years.

"The community felt really bad about what happened because they were coming here to help us, not just us, but the whole state of Mississippi."


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