First Murder Charge in '64 Civil Rights Killings of 3

New York Times/January 7, 2005
By Robert D. McFadden

The most infamous unresolved case from America's civil rights struggle four decades ago - the 1964 abduction and killing of three voter-registration volunteers by nightriders on a lonely rural road in Mississippi - was revived last night with the arrest of a longtime leader of the Ku Klux Klan, the authorities announced.

The suspect, Edgar Ray Killen, a 79-year-old preacher who, investigators say, organized and led two carloads of Klansmen on the night of the killings, was arrested at his home in Philadelphia, Miss., and charged with the murders of Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney, Sheriff Larry Myers of Neshoba County said.

The sheriff said there would be more arrests in the notorious case, which helped to cement Mississippi's image as a haven of hatred and violence in the 1960's, when black churches, homes and businesses were firebombed and civil rights volunteers were beaten by white mobs. The case was the subject of several books and was dramatized in the 1988 movie "Mississippi Burning."

The murders provoked an outpouring of national support for the civil rights movement, and in the ensuing investigations federal officials gathered enough evidence to prosecute 18 Klansmen in 1967 on charges of violating the civil rights of the three slain men.

Seven Klansmen were convicted and sentenced to prison terms ranging from 3 years to 10 years, although none served more than 6 years. Mr. Killen was released after there was a deadlock by an all-white jury.

But the state never brought murder charges in the case, and it was not until 1999 that the state's attorney general reopened the matter, after The Clarion-Ledger of Jackson, Miss., published exposés, including excerpts from a secret interview given to a state archivist by Sam Bowers, the onetime imperial wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, America's most violent white supremacist group in the 1960's.

In the interview, Mr. Bowers, who was serving a life sentence for ordering the 1966 firebombing in Hattiesburg, Miss., that killed Vernon Dahmer, a prominent civil rights leader, said he had thwarted justice in the killings of Mr. Schwerner, Mr. Goodman and Mr. Chaney.

Mr. Bowers also said in the interview that he did not mind going to jail because a fellow Klansman had gotten away with murder.

A grand jury last year found sufficient evidence after 40 years to go ahead with the case, and its indictments led to Mr. Killen's arrest.

The slain civil rights workers - Mr. Chaney, 21, a black man from Meridian, Miss., and two white New Yorkers, Mr. Schwerner, 24, a Cornell graduate, and Mr. Goodman, 20, who had attended Queens College - were participating in what became known as Freedom Summer, the climax of an intensive voter-registration drive in the South.

Mr. Goodman's mother, Dr. Carolyn Goodman, said in a telephone interview from her apartment on the Upper West Side, "This was something that had to happen - there was no question."

Dr. Goodman, 89, has been actively involved in civil rights work since her son's death and has just completed a documentary about the killings, "Freedom Now." She said that her two other sons were out of the country and that she had not yet spoken with them about the arrest.

Dr. Goodman spoke from the apartment where, one day in 1964, Andrew told her that he was going to the South to do civil rights work.

"He said, 'Mom, you know, I was raised in an era of terrible things that have happened in my lifetime, so I have to go,' " she recalled.

She added: "It wasn't easy for us. But we couldn't talk out of both sides of our mouths. So I had to let him go."

Reached by phone at her home in Willingboro, N.J., Mr. Chaney's mother, Fannie Lee Chaney, said, "Mighty long time." Of those who took part in the killings, Mrs. Chaney said, "Most of them dead about now."

The victims were working with the Congress of Racial Equality at a community center in Meridian. Mr. Chaney had been a volunteer there for months. Mr. Schwerner had gone to Mississippi with his wife, Rita, in January 1964, having been hired as a CORE field worker. Mr. Goodman, a graduate of the Walden School on Manhattan's Upper West Side, arrived in Mississippi only a day before he was killed.

On June 21, 1964, the three men set out together in a Ford station wagon to inspect the ruins of a black church near Philadelphia, Miss., that had been firebombed by the Klan. Mr. Chaney was driving. In the afternoon, they were arrested for "speeding" by a Neshoba County deputy sheriff, Cecil Price. They were held at the sheriff's office in Philadelphia for several hours.

During those hours, according to testimony at the federal trial, Deputy Price sent out word that the three in custody included a man who had been designated Goatee - the Klan's code for Mr. Schwerner, who had a goatee and had been marked for death by Mr. Bowers. Mr. Schwerner had infuriated the Klan by organizing a boycott of a white-owned variety store until it hired a black, and by his intensive work to register black voters.

According to testimony in the federal trial, Deputy Price held the men long enough for Mr. Killen to round up a group of Klansmen. The civil rights workers were released from jail and were never seen again, although their subsequent movements were later established.

Leaving the jail that night, they drove down Route 19, tailed by Deputy Price and two carloads of Klansmen. After a frantic chase, they were caught and taken to an isolated spot on Rock Cut Road, where they were killed: Mr. Schwerner on Mr. Bowers's orders, and Mr. Chaney and Mr. Goodman because they were witnesses.

Mr. Chaney was beaten to death, while Mr. Schwerner and Mr. Goodman were each shot once in the chest. Their station wagon was set ablaze, and the bodies were buried under an earthen dam on the farm of a prominent Philadelphian, Olen Burrage.

Six weeks later, after one of the largest searches ever undertaken by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, helped by 200 American sailors, the bodies were discovered. In the ensuing federal investigation, 19 men were arrested on charges of violating the victims' civil rights, and 18 were eventually brought to trial three years after the killings. Mr. Bowers, Mr. Price and five others were convicted; three others were released because the jury found itself deadlocked. The rest were acquitted.

Mr. Killen, the man charged last night, is one of eight suspects still alive. He was identified during the 1967 trial as the Klan leader who had received the orders from Mr. Bowers to kill Mr. Schwerner, and as the man who had coordinated the Klansmen's activities on the night of the killings. But he was released with the jury deadlocked 11 to 1 in favor of conviction. The lone holdout insisted she could never convict a preacher.

Mr. Killen's arrest followed grand jury testimony that reportedly included accounts of people who had direct knowledge of the killings. Sheriff Myers declined to comment on the proceedings, but said Mr. Killen had been arrested first because he was prominent in the case and available.

"We went ahead and got him because he was high profile and we knew where he was," the sheriff said.

Mr. Killen has always denied any involvement in the slayings. In an interview with The Clarion-Ledger last year, he spoke about the killers of the civil rights workers. "I'm not going to say they were wrong," he declared. "I believe in self-defense."

Jerry G. Killen, the suspect's brother, told The Associated Press that he had no knowledge of the arrest but was quoted as saying he thought it was "pitiful." He said his brother never mentioned the slayings. "He won't talk about it," Jerry Killen said. "I don't know if he did it or not."

Mississippi has reopened some old civil rights murder cases. In 1994, Byron de la Beckwith was convicted of the 1963 assassination of Medgar Evers, a field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

A critical piece of evidence in the murder of the civil rights workers has been the 3,000-page transcript of the 1967 federal trial. Under the court rules in Mississippi, even the testimony of witnesses who have died or are unavailable can be put before a grand jury. Indeed, such testimony was used to convict Mr. de la Beckwith, who died in prison in 2001.

While the killings of the civil rights workers have remained in the public eye over the years, there was little progress in the case until it was reopened by Attorney General Jim Hood. Last month, an anonymous donor posted a $100,000 reward for information leading to murder charges.

Outside the grand jury room yesterday, Billy Wayne Posey, one of the men convicted in the federal trial, leaned on a cane and complained about being subpoenaed.

"After 40 years to come back and do something like this is ridiculous, like a nightmare," Mr. Posey said. He refused to talk about what he expected to be asked by the grand jury.

Efforts to bring about a trial for the murder of civil rights workers in Mississippi have been enhanced in recent years by the opening of the long-secret files of the State Sovereignty Commission, which was founded in 1956 to defend the state from "encroachment" by federal authorities. Before it was abolished in 1977, the commission monitored anyone suspected of promoting racial integration. Containing 87,000 names, the files detail a series of Klan killings in the 1960's, including those of Mr. Evers and Mr. Dahmer, as well as those of Mr. Schwerner, Mr. Chaney and Mr. Goodman.

They also detail the profound hatred that many white Mississippians held for civil rights workers. In 1964, a wave of thousands of civil rights activists, many of them white college students from the North, went to Mississippi and other states in the South as part of a broad coalition to end the political disenfranchisement of black people.

Within a month of the murders, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

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