Jerry Mitchell -- Still Seeking Justice for Civil Rights Killings

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By Jerry Mitchell
Sunday, August 23, 2009

PHILADELPHIA, Miss. On summer's first night in 1964, Billy Wayne Posey joined more than 20 other Klansmen on a deserted dirt road where three helpless young men were gunned down, loaded into a station wagon and buried 15 feet beneath an earthen dam.

On Aug. 13, Posey died at age 73 of natural causes. He spent a few years in federal prison for conspiracy but never faced murder charges in the June 21, 1964, killings of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andy Goodman and Mickey Schwerner. A smattering of people showed up for his funeral.

In the years after the killings, this community bore the shame of the murders and the stigma of Martin Luther King Jr. saying, after he visited in 1966, "There is a complete reign of terror here."

Over the past decade, though, the town has begun to more fully face its history. It printed brochures that honestly describe the past, and citizens formed a multiracial group called the Philadelphia Coalition that successfully pushed for prosecution of the case. But full disclosure is elusive, and Posey's death reminds us how long the accounting has taken.

In the days following the trio's disappearance, hundreds of FBI agents arrived here to investigate, and reporters shared the story, which made headlines around the globe. Mississippi's governor proclaimed that the missing men were part of a desperate hoax by communists.

The truth came 44 days later. That's when FBI agents found the bodies entombed in clay.

A quarter-century afterward, I watched that true story unfold onscreen. As a 29-year-old reporter, I had been assigned to cover the state's premiere of "Mississippi Burning," a movie about the killings, which I knew little about. I happened to see it that night with two FBI agents who had investigated the case. After the film was over, I wondered aloud why none of these Klansmen had ever been tried for murder. The agents said everyone knew who the killers were, but the state balked at prosecuting, believing convictions were impossible. The agents assured me that these killers were hardly the only ones who had escaped justice in those days.

At the time of the 1989 premiere, I was covering courts for the newspaper in Jackson, Miss. -- a place I had never intended to live. After the movie, I wrote story after story on the cases and found myself drawn into the dark world of white supremacists, who welcomed me, perhaps because of my alabaster skin, my Southern accent and my conservative Christian upbringing.

Over plates of barbecue and catfish, they warned me of communists and told me that the stories I had heard in Sunday school about God loving all races were lies. They paid their light bills, fed their dogs, kept clean houses and moved through their communities with the respect their age required. People called them "sir."

But sitting there, I just knew. I could feel the evil in them the same way you feel an old piece of glass that got stuck in your foot on some forgotten creek bank, slowly working its way out.

That's how it felt, anyway, when Billy Wayne Posey reassured me in 1999 that he had nothing to do with the deaths of these three men. By that time, I had been covering the killings of the trio and others from the civil rights era for more than a decade.

Seven years later -- long after he had quit talking to me -- I read what he had told Mississippi authorities in 2000. How he had been among the Klansmen chasing down the men that night. How he had been a member of the killing party. How he talked of "a lot of persons involved in the murders that did not go to jail."


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© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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