Mississippi delved into its troubled past late yesterday as sheriff's deputies arrested an 80-year-old reputed Ku Klux Klan member on charges of killing three young voting rights workers in 1964 in one of the most notorious crimes of the civil rights era.
Edgar Ray Killen, known as "The Preacher," was taken into custody in central Mississippi hours after a grand jury convened in Philadelphia, Miss., to hear evidence in the killing of the three activists, a crime dramatized in the 1988 movie "Mississippi Burning." The names of the three -- Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney -- have long been synonymous with the horrors that often accompanied attempts to desegregate the Deep South and bring basic voting rights to the disenfranchised.
Video: Reputed Klansman Edgar Ray Killen has pleaded innocent to the 1964 murders of three civil right workers in Mississippi.
Killen is the first person to be arrested on murder charges in the 41-year-old case.
"It's something that was late in coming," Goodman's mother, Carolyn Goodman, 89, said in a telephone interview from her home in New York. "I just knew that somehow this would happen -- it's something that had to be."
Neshoba County Sheriff Larry Myers told the Associated Press that more arrests will follow the jailing of Killen, who was acquitted of federal conspiracy charges when the case was first tried in 1967. Indictments will be announced today.
The case, like so many slayings of the civil rights era, lingered in the minds of the next generations of civil rights activists. It came to be known as the "Mississippi Burning" case after the film's release, but its mysteries remained unsolved. As the years passed, evidence surfaced, keeping the case alive for the victims' family members, who have maintained that justice was denied.
In 1999, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger published an interview with Sam Bowers, a former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard who said he was glad to see the ringleader of the crime go free. Later, a group known as the Philadelphia Coalition pushed Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood to reopen the investigation. Previous attorneys general had looked into the case, including Michael Moore, the former top Mississippi lawyer best known for his role in the nationwide settlement between the states and major tobacco companies. But no arrests had been made.
Mississippi has had some success over the years in exorcising demons of its past with high-profile prosecutions of decades-old cases. In 1994, Byron De La Beckwith was convicted in the 1963 assassination of NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers, 37. In 2003, Ernest Avants, 72, a reputed Klansman, was convicted of killing a black sharecropper named Ben Chester White as part of a plot to assassinate Martin Luther King Jr. by luring him to southern Mississippi.
Avants had been acquitted in 1967 -- the same year that the men accused of killing Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney went on trial. One of those men -- Billy Wayne Posey, who was convicted of conspiracy in 1967 -- was among those who streamed into the grand jury room yesterday in Philadelphia, a pit-stop town of 7,300 northeast of the capital city of Jackson.
"After 40 years, to come back and do something like this is ridiculous . . . like a nightmare," Posey said, according to the Associated Press.
Reopening the case has not appeased all the victims' relatives. Ben Chaney, the younger brother of James Chaney, has called the latest investigation a sham that may target one or two unrepentant Klansmen but spare wealthy and influential whites who he said had a hand in the killings. Ben Chaney told the Associated Press that he and others had asked Hood early last year to turn the case over to the FBI with the goal of having a special prosecutor named to take up the investigation.
The slayings of the multiracial trio -- Schwerner and Goodman were white New Yorkers, and Chaney was black and from Meridian, Miss. -- took place during the fabled Freedom Summer, when hundreds of idealistic young people flooded into the South to educate blacks about voting rights. The three friends disappeared but were later found buried in the muck of a country dam. They had been beaten and shot.
After a massive federal investigation, seven men were convicted by an all-white jury on federal conspiracy charges in 1967, but none of the men faced murder charges and none served more than six years in prison. Killen went free after the trial. One juror reportedly said he refused to vote to convict a preacher.
Carolyn Goodman said yesterday that she hoped the men who killed her son would someday be "behind bars and think about what they've done." She found herself thinking about the last time she spoke with her son. He was resolute, she said.
"He said, 'Mom, these people are our people. I want to make our Constitution real to them,' " she recalled, her voice quavering slightly with the conflicting emotions of the day. "He said, 'I have to go there.' It was hard for us to say, but we said, 'Yes.' "