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A Cold Case, Still Burning

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."

Days ago, as news spread of Posey's death, one man called me to rub it in: "Too late, weren't you, Jerry?"

Edgar Ray Killen did live long enough to face a Mississippi jury. Killen, who orchestrated the trio's killings, is serving 60 years in the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility, where he will undoubtedly spend his last days.

Posey could have joined him there. He came within one vote of being charged with murder in 2005. A relative of his on the grand jury cast a deciding vote against indictment.

Since 1989, 23 men have been convicted in killings from the civil rights era. More recently, legislation has created a cold-cases unit in the Justice Department, aimed at determining whether justice is possible in any other cases. Meanwhile, through the Center for Investigative Reporting, I am working with fellow journalists, documentary filmmakers and others to examine dozens of unpunished killings that have never been fully investigated.

After two men were finally sent to prison a few years ago for their roles in the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., that killed four girls, then-U.S. Attorney Doug Jones stood on the courthouse steps and declared, "Justice delayed isn't justice denied." It is a sentiment that families have repeated to me.

When a Neshoba County jury pronounced Killen guilty on June 21, 2005 -- the 41st anniversary of the civil rights workers' killings -- many residents regarded his conviction as the thing that would help exorcise the ghosts of the past.

Perhaps it helped to do that. Six months after the nation elected Barack Obama its first black president, this majority-white town of nearly 8,000 elected James Young its first black mayor.

With each step of progress, though, the past never seems far behind. Young, who publicly supported the prosecution of these killers, still recalls the Klan terrorizing his neighborhood and his daddy gripping a gun to protect his family.

When I shared news of Posey's death with Goodman's brother, David, of New York, he expressed regret, saying Posey "should have lived forever."

That feeling is shared by other family members and those who have been seeking justice for decades. Jewel McDonald, a 63-year-old member of the Philadelphia Coalition, can't forget Klansmen brutalizing her family members and burning down their church here.

Killen's conviction has aided race relations and perhaps played an unspoken role in the mayor's victory, McDonald said. "His election means a great deal, not just to the black community, but to the white community. It says we're not the same place we were 45 years ago."

My decision to chase these crimes for more than 20 years has hardly been popular. Some people have written letters to the editor. Others have cancelled their subscriptions to the newspaper. A few have leveled threats.

"Did you think we were going to let you go unscathed?" one man told me. "You are a traitor. We know where you and your family live. We have photographs." Another man encouraged me to visit Philadelphia so people there could cut my throat.

Four suspects in the trio's killings are alive and could still be prosecuted if enough evidence can be found. One of those suspects is Olen Burrage, the owner of the property where the bodies were buried. He has insisted on his innocence.

But an FBI informant said Burrage had talked with Klansmen in advance of civil rights workers arriving in Mississippi, boasting that he had a dam that would "hold a hundred of them."

Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers, who headed the White Knights at the time and ordered the killings, bragged before his 2006 death that the truth of what happened that night and on so many other dark nights in Mississippi would remain buried forever.

I believe he is wrong, and that is why I continue to dig.

jmitchell@clarionledger.com

Jerry Mitchell is an investigative reporter for the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss.

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