By: Marc H. Morial
President and CEO
National Urban League
Thursday, Mississippi authorities arrested a reputed longtime leader of the state’s Ku Klux Klan for one of the most dastardly crimes that struck the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s: the murder of three civil rights workers in Neshoba County, Mississippi in June, 1964.
The suspect, Edgar Ray Killen, now 79, pleaded not guilty at his arraignment today in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the county seat, according to news reports and is being held without bond.
The three activists—James Chaney, a 21-year-old black Mississippian, Michael Schwerner, 24, and Andrew Goodman, 21, two New Yorkers—were abducted on June 21, 1964 by Klan members with the connivance of law officers of Philadelphia, and the surrounding Neshoba County and brutally murdered because they, like their co-workers during the Movement's "Mississippi Freedom Summer" campaign, had been fearless in challenging the perverted laws and the extra-legal violence white racists used to rule Mississippi.
Killen, a preacher, was one of eighteen white men—some reputed Klan members, others local law officers—brought to trial in 1967 in that small town on federal charges of, not murder, but of violating the victims' civil rights.
Seven of the men were convicted; none of them spent more than six years in prison. Eight were acquitted of the charge; and three were released because the jury deadlocked in reaching a unanimous verdict about them.
Killen was one of those three. According to news reports, he was identified during the trial as having been the coordinator of the Klan's role in the crime and having been specifically ordered by a top Klan official to kill Schwerner.
According to a dispatch in the New York Times, Killen has always denied being involved in the crime.
Nonetheless, the story noted, he referred to the killers of the three during an interview last year in the Jackson (Miss) Clarion-Ledger by saying, "I'm not going to say they were wrong. I believe in self-defense."
Edgar Ray Killen is of course entitled to the presumption of innocence.
But I am heartened by this signal that Mississippi authorities do not intend to let those who murdered the three civil rights workers so long ago—eight of the suspects are still alive—escape the judgment of contemporary society and of history, for they in their old age remain the face of the evil that ruled the American South for two-thirds of the twentieth century.
During that time it was often referred to with obscuring euphemisms, from "Jim Crow" to "the Southern way of life."
But now let us speak plainly: It was an era of a reign of terror.
The whole of America now has a broad and deep understanding of what "terrorism"—the amoral targeting for violence of innocent civilians—is.
Many African Americans, and Black America in general, have long known what terrorism is—because for a century after the Civil War black Americans endured a reign of terror throughout the Old Confederacy: thousands of them, bereft of protection from local, state and federal governments, had their homes and businesses and churches burned, and grieved for their neighbors and members of their own families who were beaten and murdered.
The perversion of democracy and of human decency that produced in the White South has been poignantly documented in many books and articles by black and white authors. Certainly, one cannot read such accounts of this case as William Bradford Huie's 3 Lives for Mississippi, and Jack Mendelsohn's "Brotherhood Beneath an Earthen Dam" in his The Martyrs: Sixteen Who Gave Their Lives for Racial Justice, without realizing the enormity of the evil Southern segregationists were fighting—and murdering—to preserve.
For decades many civil rights veterans, and many segregationists, too, no doubt, were convinced the civil rights murders of these years in Mississippi and elsewhere would never be truly pursued. But since 1989 prosecutors in the Deep South have re-examined at least 19 civil rights-related killings, and gained nearly ten convictions, one mistrial, and one acquittal.
Equally important, that these long-ago crimes are being pursued shows a determined refusal on the part of black and white prosecutors and other law officials, and ordinary citizens in the South to let the great crimes of the region's past go unpunished.
We trust—and we use the word deliberately and sincerely—that Mississippi state authorities will continue their pursuit of justice for the murder of the three civil rights workers. Their actions are another example of the power of the insights of the Movement's chief spokesman, Martin Luther King, Jr., who said in one of his speeches that "the arc of the moral universe in long, but it bends toward justice."
Yesterday's arrest in a crime that still pierces the heart of any decent person is a sign that at last in this case we are bending toward its proper resolution: justice.
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