Florence Mars; Wrote of 1964 KKK Killings

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 30, 2006

Florence Mars, 83, a Mississippian whose book about the 1964 Ku Klux Klan killings of three young civil rights workers offered insights into a small town's reluctance to acknowledge what had happened in its midst, died April 23 at her home in Philadelphia, Miss. The cause of death was complications from Bell's palsy.

Ms. Mars's book, "Witness in Philadelphia" (1977), part local history and part autobiography, tells the story of the deaths of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, who were in Mississippi to register black voters during the so-called Freedom Summer of 1964.

Bill Minor, then Mississippi correspondent for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, recalled that in June of that year Ms. Mars had heard rumors that a rural black church had been burned, but local authorities denied that it had happened. She called Minor, who was able to confirm that Klan members had torched the church and beaten the congregation's elders. His story went out on the wires.

The three civil rights workers heard about it, drove over to investigate and were arrested afterward on a trumped-up traffic violation. Released from the Neshoba County jail a few hours later, they were ambushed by Klan members, who beat and shot them and then buried their bodies in an earthen dam.

Ms. Mars, whose family had lived in Neshoba County for generations, had her own run-ins with the Klan, even before she wrote the book. She was one of the few whites in Philadelphia willing to cooperate with FBI agents who descended on the town after the killings, and she was harassed by the local sheriff and his deputies, who were Klan members.

Sheets and hoods didn't frighten her, even when her barn was burned to the ground and her cattle-auction business was boycotted, forcing her eventually to sell out.

"I just wasn't taught to fear the Klan, and knowing who I thought they were, the kind of people they were, I just thought . . . that I really was immune to pressure from the Klan," she told an oral historian from the University of Southern Mississippi in 1978.

A Sunday school teacher at the local Methodist church, Ms. Mars said she always believed that Southern churches should have been more forthright in their condemnation of racial violence and their support for equal rights. She was ostracized for a time for her own forthrightness.

Florence Latimer Mars was born in Philadelphia, attended Millsaps College for a year and graduated from the University of Mississippi in 1944. Except for a brief period in Atlanta, where she worked as a reservationist for Delta Air Lines during World War II, and in New Orleans, where she developed a lifelong interest in photography, she lived in Philadelphia her whole life.

She bought the Neshoba County Livestock Sale in 1957, handling cattle, mules, horses, hogs and geese. A cattle owner, tree farmer and photographer, she never thought of herself as a writer, although she knew she had compelling stories to tell about small-town Mississippi and the 1964 killings.

It was William Turner Catledge, then managing editor of the New York Times -- and scion of the Turner hardware family in Philadelphia -- who urged her to get her stories down on paper. She worked on the book off and on for about a decade before it was published by Louisiana State University Press.

"She was caustic," said Minor, a friend since the two had met in 1955 at the trial in the slaying of Emmett Till in nearby Sumner, Miss. "She had a razor-sharp wit even after the Bell's palsy."

"She could be difficult, but she was also brave," said Lynn Eden, a Stanford University professor who lived with Ms. Mars in the early 1970s and helped her write the book.

Incapacitated by her illness for the last 15 years of her life, she lived to see Edgar Ray Killen, a former Klansman and part-time preacher, convicted last year of manslaughter for orchestrating the killings of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner. Exactly 41 years from the day the young men were slain, Ms. Mars was in the courtroom, in her wheelchair, to hear the verdict.

There are no immediate survivors.

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