The way it worked was like this: After Edgar Ray Killen was arrested last week for the 1964 murder of three civil rights workers in Neshoba County, Miss., I went back to a story I had written from Mississippi in 1975 and the interview I had done with the onetime deputy sheriff, Cecil Price. He had gone to jail for that crime -- a federal civil rights violation, not murder -- and had only recently been freed. He had wanted to talk to me for a number of reasons, he said, one of them being an attempt to restore the reputation of his hometown, Philadelphia, Miss. It was not such a bad place, he said, and the murders, well, "it was just something that happened in the '60s."
It was incredible to come face to face with Price, whose newspaper picture had once been synonymous with Southern racist violence. By 1975, though, he had grown a beard, was driving a fuel truck and recently had had to take his kid out of school for a couple of days when CBS aired a movie about the killings. The school, once segregated, was now integrated. That was something that happened in the '70s.
(Edgar Ray Killen, Center, In Philadelphia, Miss., On Jan. 7/Kyl)
Years later -- in 1994, to be exact -- I went back to Philadelphia, Miss. It was the 30th anniversary of Freedom Summer, when young people from all over the country went into the South to break the back of Jim Crow. One of them was Andrew Goodman of New York City. When he got to Mississippi, he joined with James Chaney, an African American and Mississippi native, and Michael Schwerner, another New Yorker who had already been in Mississippi for a while. It was Schwerner the killers were apparently after. He was the most hated of all stereotypes -- "the Jew boy with the beard," as he was called.
On the day that I joined the civil rights veterans on their bus ride, I sat near Andrew's mother, Carolyn Goodman. We talked about things I can no longer recall, and then the bus made a turn and she spotted the region's famous and infamous red clay, the burial pit for many a black victim, or, as happened to Carolyn Goodman's son, the rare civil rights worker.
"The red dirt," she said in horror.
"What's the matter?" her seatmate asked.
"The red dirt," she repeated.
There's something bizarre, seemingly cruel, in bringing Killen to trial more than 40 years after his alleged crime. He's like one of those addled Japanese soldiers found on some Pacific isle long after World War II had ended -- a human artifact, abandoned by time itself. In Killen's case, some witnesses are dead and those who live have memories probably taken more from old Life magazine stories or Hollywood movies ("Mississippi Burning") than from the actual events. The crime itself has a fusty quality to it, a lynching under cover of the law. It happens no more.
But in this case, as in the ones of decrepit former Nazis the government wants to boot back to their native country, the issue is not lessons taught, although that is good, or justice served, although that is great, but the victims. Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were good kids, some of the best of their generation. The Northerners who went south that summer were mostly leftists who would have resisted fighting in Vietnam (another battle of those remarkable times) and would be denounced for it now as they were then: cowards, selfish, self-involved. But they were remarkably brave and sacrificing -- not afraid to be afraid for a cause that, in the end, mattered more to us all: civil rights for all Americans.
Since that first time in Philadelphia and the time after, I think of Cecil Price, who seemed an ordinary man, and of the other people I met back in 1975, some of them very nice, and there is an understandable tendency to let bygones be bygones and let the dead weight of the past slip away. But you have to think also of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner on that black night, alone and frightened, forsaken by the law because the law was lawless, murdered in America for nothing less than being American. We owe them our persistent rage -- that and the vow that their killers will always be looking over their shoulders. That is not a '60s thing. It's for all eternity.