For Lawrence Guyot Jr., Thursday's arrest of a suspect in the 1964 slayings of three civil rights workers in Mississippi was not only a philosophical vindication but also something deeply personal.
Four decades ago, as a field worker with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Guyot almost joined Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney in their drive to the Mississippi town of Philadelphia to investigate the bombing of a black church. At the last moment, he decided not to go. But he advised them that with all the national media attention to a voter registration drive in the state that summer, they would be perfectly safe.
Their bodies were found 40 days later. More than 40 years would pass before authorities would arrest a reputed Ku Klux Klan member on murder charges.
"I prayed to live until this day," Guyot, a program monitor with the D.C. Office of Childhood Development, said yesterday. "We fought for this. We dreamed of this. And now it is reality. It's a statement that political assassinations are not acceptable in the state of Mississippi. Never again."
Throughout the Washington region, veterans of the civil rights crusade of the 1960s greeted the news of the arrest of longtime suspect Edgar Ray Killen, 79, a preacher in Philadelphia, Miss., with a mix of relief and regret. It opened the floodgates of memory to a time and place of lynchings and segregation, when helping black people register to vote could get a person killed.
"I said the stereotypic words: 'At last!' " said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who as a law student went to Mississippi in 1963 to work with SNCC creating model freedom schools that taught voting rights. The freedom schools laid the groundwork for the following year's Freedom Summer, in which students from across the nation headed to the state for a voting rights project.
Norton said she did not believe there would ever be an arrest in the case of the three young activists whose killings opened the country's eyes to the brutality with which segregation was being enforced. Schwerner and Goodman were white New Yorkers; Chaney, who was black, was from Mississippi.
"I guess the fact that no one was ever prosecuted made me think it was just going to be out there, with no one ever held responsible," Norton said. "It's easier now, because those who would oppose law enforcement moving forward are usually gone or dispersed. But it's harder, because evidence withers away.
"It diminishes the level of justice to come so long after the killings," she added. "The ones who deserve justice, the ones most closely hurt, are dead now. And those who aren't have been living with this pain without any justice being done. But pursuing justice, even justice delayed, is a gain."
Frank Smith, executive director of the African American Civil War Memorial Museum in the District, said the arrest inevitably evoked memories of a summer when he and other SNCC activists in Mississippi were warned that police were writing down their license plate numbers and passing them on to Klan members.
"You dredge up memories you think were buried away in your mind and heart and think, here we go again," said Smith, a former D.C. Council member. "But the truth is, until justice is done, these things eat away at your spirit and your soul and your heart. For Mississippi and America, we have to do this. There are criminals around there who never spent a moment even on trial for it. We've still got some housecleaning to do. We can't close out that period without bringing some justice to the situation."
Even as they celebrated the arrest, many veterans of the era could not help but rue the four decades that had elapsed.
"My God, it's taken so long," said Heather Tobis Booth, a Washington-based organizer who was 18 in 1964 and in training as a SNCC volunteer when the three civil rights workers went missing. She had been in Mississippi for one week when their bodies were found as she stayed in a freedom school watching cars circle menacingly at night while passengers threw bottles and shouted vile catcalls.
"Have the lessons really been learned?" Booth asked. "The struggle for justice still goes on. The most important lesson to learn out of it is, if you organize, you can change history."
But for Guyot, who has followed the case every step of the way, the arrest of a suspect brought pure "relief, gratitude and exhilaration."
"I think this ranks up there with the passage of the Voting Rights Act," he said. "This is a tremendous achievement for the state of Mississippi."
Today's Mississippi bears little resemblance to the state in which Guyot was born, he added.
"In 1964, the state policy of Mississippi was one of apartheid," he said. "It brought terror on black and white citizens. I've seen the state change to such an extent that it convicted the killer of Medgar Evers, and it will be moving now to bring justice in the murders of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman.
"I am proud to be a Mississippian."