Silver Rights

News, thoughts and comments on civil rights and related issues.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005  

News: "Preacher" Killen convicted of manslaughter

A local court has found Edgar Ray Killen, a sawmill owner and minister, guilty in the deaths of three civil rights workers killed in Philadelphia, Miss., in 1964. The murder charges were the first ever brought in the case by local officials. A federal court convicted seven of 18 defendants of civil rights violations in 1965. None of them served more than six years in prison. Killen was acquitted because a holdout on the all-white jury said she could not vote to convict a minister.

The New York Times reports on Killen's last day as a free man.

PHILADELPHIA, Miss., June 21 - It was likely the final chapter in a story that has troubled a generation. On the 41st anniversary of the disappearance of three young, idealistic civil rights workers near here, a jury pronounced Edgar Ray Killen guilty today of three counts of manslaughter in their deaths

Mr. Killen, 80, sat in a wheelchair, the thin greenish tubes of an oxygen tank under his nose, his expression impassive as the verdict was read aloud. Throughout the courtroom, people wept - the Killen family on the right, the victims' relatives on the left, and townspeople who have over the last few years become deeply invested in seeing the case brought to trial.

Roscoe Jones, a tall, elderly black man with tear-rimmed eyes who had worked with the three men, pushed his way through the crowd to the side of Rita Bender, a diminutive, blue-eyed white woman with cropped white hair, who had been married to one of the victims. "Excuse me," he said, politely urgent. "Excuse me." When he got to her, they embraced.

The disappearance of the three men, Andrew Goodman, 20, and Michael Schwerner, 24, and James Earl Chaney, 21, drew the national news media and hundreds of searchers to Neshoba County four decades ago, while Mississippi officials said publicly that their disappearance was a hoax designed to draw attention. When their bodies were later found under 15 feet of earth on a nearby farm, the nation's horror galvanized the civil rights movement.

I am glad to see "Preacher" Killen finally face a measure of justice. However, I believe he should have been convicted of murder. When a person arranges to have graves dug for his intended victims, his intention is not to merely to assault them, but to kill them. Killen had graves dug and waiting, along with bulldozer operators who covered the hole in the earthen dam in which the young men were buried. Rita Bender, the widow of Michael Schwerner, says that though she is relieved by the conviction of Killen for manslaughter, she believes it is, in part, an evasion of the truth.

I agree. New York Times reporter Joseph Lelyveld learned why accepting the idea that the killings are murders is difficult for white residents when he visited the small Southern town in 1965.

But, as the outsider learns, the very notion that it is murder to kill "a nigger and a couple of nigger lovers" hits Philadelphia with revolutionary force. "How can it be murder?" one man asked, "they agitated it."

Perhaps the white jurors actually believe there was not enough evidence to convince Killen of murder. They're wrong. There was.

posted by J. | 10:20 PM