PHILADELPHIA, Miss., Jan. 7 -- Edgar Ray Killen spent four decades as one of the most infamous citizens of this unfortunate town, a speck of a place in central Mississippi forever tarnished by a notorious episode of civil-rights-era violence.
Rights activists everywhere knew his face. They knew his history -- how he beat a federal conspiracy rap more than 40 years ago when a lone holdout juror said she couldn't convict a preacher, on trial in connection with the killing of three civil rights workers.
Edgar Ray Killen pleaded not guilty to the murder charges.
Video: Reputed Klansman Edgar Ray Killen has pleaded innocent to the 1964 murders of three civil right workers in Mississippi.
But few dreamed the 79-year-old preacher would ever face a jury to answer a much larger question: Is he guilty of orchestrating the 1964 killings of Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney? On Friday, the once unthinkable happened. Killen -- gray, handcuffed and dressed in an orange jail jumpsuit -- walked stiffly into a downtown courthouse and became the first person to face murder charges in the 41-year-old case.
At times sucking in his lower lip, Killen listened calmly as the charges were read. Then, in a loud, unhesitating voice, he said "Not guilty" three times.
Prosecutors here in Neshoba County had hoped to appear in court Friday with a string of defendants alongside Killen. They had sought indictments of all eight living members of a group of 18 men who were tried for conspiracy to violate the rights of the three men in 1967. But the grand jury chose to indict only Killen. Despite the setback in the grand jury room, District Attorney Mark Duncan called the arrest of Killen "a significant moment in the history of Philadelphia and Neshoba County and Mississippi."
It was a long time coming. Civil rights activists have pushed prosecutors for years to seek indictments of Killen and others associated with the crime, which was dramatized in the 1988 film "Mississippi Burning."
The pressure built last fall. In October, hundreds marched in Jackson, the state capital, to demand that Attorney General Jim Hood take action in the case. Hood and Duncan, both of whom are white, were new to their offices, and activists believe the investigation may have accelerated because of their fresh perspective.
"The stars just aligned," said Fenton DeWeese, a Philadelphia lawyer who was active in the multiracial Philadelphia Coalition that pushed for the case to be revived.
Others are more cautious. Years of disappointment have made them wary. Only a handful of residents attended the hearing in the brick courthouse set on a town square ringed by small shops.
James Young, a Pentecostal minister and Neshoba County supervisor, had business in the courthouse Friday, but he did not bother to witness the history-making arraignment.
"It's almost like another day that we have to wait and see," said Young, 49, who is black. "It's kind of like getting your hopes up and then they pull the rug out from under you."
The caution expressed by Young and many of his constituents has been voiced most forcefully in recent days by Ben Chaney, the younger brother of James Chaney, the only black member of the trio of civil rights workers killed so long ago.
"I believe the local attorney is going to protect the rich and the powerful," Chaney said Friday in an interview from his home in Meridian, Miss. "I believe this is an attempt to make the ringleader a scapegoat. So unless each and everyone of them is indicted, I don't believe this is a victory."
Chaney's suspicions have been greeted with gentle disapproval by the activists here who helped him fight to reopen the case. "He has a right to be angry," DeWeese said. "But where's the evidence? Where's the beef?"
Schwerner, 24, Chaney, 21, and Goodman, 20, were killed in 1964 while returning to Meridian from a trip to inspect a firebombed black church. They were part of the Freedom Summer, a movement that drew hundreds of mostly college-age students to Mississippi to set up schools and performing arts centers for blacks and to educate blacks about voting rights.
Schwerner, who like Goodman was a New Yorker, was known by Klansmen as "Goatee" or "Jew Boy," according to testimony in the 1967 trial. He was reviled by the Klan for organizing a black boycott of a white-owned business and for his voting rights efforts.
The fate of the three men was unknown for months, prompting a massive federal investigation. During the search, the Civil Rights Act was passed in Washington. Eventually, the trio's bodies were found buried in a dam at the farm of a prominent farmer, Olen Burrage, one of the men the grand jury refused to indict this week.
On Friday, after Killen's arraignment, Schwerner's widow, now Rita Bender, said in an interview from Seattle, where she lives, that "this state of Mississippi, through its official entities, encouraged violence. Forty years have gone by and the fact that criminal charges are being brought now may indicate a willingness to talk about what the state's involvement was in racism and state-sponsored terror."
Duncan said he will not seek the death penalty when Killen goes to trial in one of the local court's regularly scheduled sessions in March, July or October. He would not discuss the details of his case, but he did note that "a lot of witnesses have passed, a lot of evidence has been lost, people's memories have faded."
Special correspondent Catharine Skipp contributed to this report.