Civil rights verdict cheered

The Montgomery Advertiser/June 22, 2005
By Crystal Bonvillian

Justice in the 1964 deaths of three civil rights workers has long been delayed, but it has not been denied, say several Montgomery area residents.

A Mississippi jury on Tuesday convicted 80-year-old Edgar Ray Killen of manslaughter in the slayings of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.

The verdict came 41 years to the day since the men were beaten and shot to death by Ku Klux Klan members in the small town of Philadelphia, Miss. Their bodies were found 44 days later, buried in an earthen dam. Killen could face up to 60 years in prison -- 20 years on each of three counts -- the maximun sentence for manslaughter in Mississippi.

Reaction in central Alabama was a mixture of relief and vindication.

"I think it's the way it should've been, even if it's 40 years later," said Earl Shannon of Camden. "I think they should give him the maximum sentence."

According to the Associated Press, Killen's sentencing has been set for Thursday.

The Rev. Frederick Douglass Reese, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Selma, said he is "delighted" to see justice served after more than four decades.

"I hope that it can give their families some sort of peace," Reese said.

Reese, a major figure in the Selma-to-Montgomery march for voting rights in 1965, said he remembers well the turmoil surrounding the slayings of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner.

"There was outrage at the denial of human and civil rights, really, for everyone," Reese said. "Their deaths really brought about an awakening for a lot of people. (They) sparked the initiative to keep fighting."

State Rep. Alvin Holmes, D-Montgomery, agreed.

"The Lord works in mysterious ways," Holmes said. "They gave their lives to help the black people. We were determined to continue the fight for the right to vote, not just in Mississippi but everywhere. To let them know they didn't die in vain."

Holmes said he is satisfied with the jury's verdict of manslaughter in Killen's case.

"A manslaughter conviction at the age of 80 is just like first-degree murder," the representative said.

Morris Dees, co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said the verdict was a good one, even if it was not the best possible outcome.

"There was probably some sympathy from the jury because Mr. Killen is 80 and in ill health," Dees said. "Any sentence would be a life sentence."

Dees, who has appeared on Court TV's "Catherine Crier Live" regarding the case, said he believes some jurors might have wanted to vote for a murder verdict. On Monday, following about two and a half hours of deliberation, the jury was reportedly split on a decision.

"It was the state who asked for manslaughter, so apparently there were some concerns about winning a murder conviction," Dees said.

Georgette Norman, director of the Troy University Montgomery Rosa Parks Library and Museum, said she believes Killen likely was guilty of murder.

"Basically, he lived a very long life with this," Norman said. "He had a lot of productive years these young men never had. Fortunately, the world never forgot them."

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