This is a terrible town. The worst I've seen. There is a complete reign of terror here.
-- Martin Luther King Jr.
Philadelphia, Miss., July 24, 1964
Here he comes, pulling up to the courthouse and you know it's finally going to start now, 41 years after the killings.
Bald head. Wiry frame. Sour disposition. Eighty years old. Alive.
Then there are the dead. Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner in June 1964. Mississippi never tried anyone for the murders until now.
There he is on Monday, the first day of jury selection, easing out of his white Mercury Marquis, easing into his wheelchair -- he broke both legs in a tree-cutting accident recently -- and rolling past the magnolia tree on the Neshoba County courthouse lawn. He's greeted by the Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan from Georgia. Every day as he arrives he's flanked by police and photographers and followed by tight-lipped family.
"Good luck, preacher!" hollers one of the few spectators who have turned out.
Up the stairs, into the courtroom for jury selection.
"All rise, all rise!"
Outside, the streets are partially blocked off around the courthouse. It's in the middle of the town square. Killen has just arrived. Nobody is in the Unique Boutique. Tower Loans and LG's Women's Clothing appear not to have opened yet. Pickup trucks and compact cars putter by, making for the bypass.
There's nothing here but TV trucks.
The reporters are in town from New York, Chicago, Washington, Miami, even London, staying out at the Golden Moon Hotel and Casino on the Choctaw Reservation.
It's a show. It's going to be broadcast on national cable, Court TV, and on the state's public television. Mississippi, Then and Now. There's your story line.
It's making the locals testy.
"The next reporter who asks me about if Neshoba has changed, I'm going to pull them in the back of the store to look at our latest import," says Linda Jenkins, owner of Carousel Gifts, just off the square. She drops her voice into a mocking twang: "C'mon back here, boys, we got this here new thang! It's got a lid and she flushes! It's one-a them thar terlets!"
Well. Fair enough. But it's not like people are making this up.
A lot of this stuff you couldn't make up, like when the court clerk is calling out names of potential jurors and she says: "Slick Thompson." Pause. "Slick Thompson, you here?"
Slick apparently is not, but everyone else is because of what happened the night of June 21, 1964, and in the months and years afterward. It's taught in history books. It's the real-life "Mississippi Burning." Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney were young activists who came to this lonely corner of northeast Mississippi to work on voter registration for blacks during the civil rights movement's "Freedom Summer" campaign.
The trio were lured to burned-out Mount Zion Church and arrested by a deputy sheriff, who was a Klan member, on the pretext of speeding. He allegedly called Killen, who is said to have been organizer of the local Klan, and Killen allegedly put together a lynch mob. The trio were released late at night, run down on a back road by two carloads of Klansmen, shot at point-blank range and buried by a bulldozer 15 feet below a pond levee.
It took the FBI 44 days to find the bodies.
"In spirit, everyone belonged to the Klan. It didn't pay to push Neshobans. They weren't afraid," Joseph Sullivan, the FBI's lead detective, said at the time.
It took three years, but a prosecutor from Washington convicted seven men of violating the dead trio's civil rights. The jury hung on Killen, 11 to 1 to convict. The one juror said she couldn't bring herself to convict a preacher.
Mississippi never said a mumbling word about murder charges for nearly 40 years.
Then Jerry Mitchell, a reporter for the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, dug up a new statement from a Klan leader in prison that implicated Killen as the ringleader.
"Not guilty," Killen said at his arraignment earlier this year.
Now it is mid-June in Mississippi again, but 2005 this time, and Edgar Ray Killen, arrested in January on charges that he organized the killings, is going on trial on three counts of murder.
At the scene of the slayings, today there are only a couple of trees, a beer can, an empty pack of smokes and some broken glass. James Chaney's grave has been vandalized so often in the nearby town of Meridian that his family has had to support the tombstone with steel beams.
At the courthouse, potential jurors, white, black and Choctaw, have filed into a side room to talk to the judge about whether they could be sequestered for as long as two weeks. Could you hear this case for that long? Could you judge it fairly?
Day 1 drags into Day 2, Day 3 . . .
Up in front, Killen talks with one of his lawyers, Mitch Moran. Also, and elsewhere, talks to God, delivers words from same. Still says the deity wants black kept separate from white. Has said he wanted to shake the hand of Martin Luther King Jr.'s killer. Espouses theories that black men want to rape white women. Fond of toting shotguns. Fonder still of threatening to shoot reporters with them, particularly those who show up at his ranch-style house out in the county, way out from town. It's out there on the old Rock Cut road, less than two miles from the murder site, lost among the red clay and pine trees.
"I'm as much for separation as I ever was," he told Mitchell a few years ago.
"The state of Mississippi sat idly by for 40 years," one of his lawyers, Jim McIntyre, is telling reporters on the courthouse lawn, his suspenders tight, his face florid in the early morning heat. "He didn't go anywhere. He lives eight miles from the courthouse. Why they are prosecuting this case now is beyond me."
A lot of people in Philadelphia and Neshoba County really, really want this trial to happen.
The Philadelphia Coalition, a local group of white, black and Choctaw residents, has fought for it. The coalition chairmen are Jim Prince, editor of the Neshoba Democrat, the local weekly, who is white, and Leroy Clemons, the president of the local NAACP, who is black. They were high school classmates.
"We're never going to wipe away the bloodstains of that crime, and I don't expect the trial to do that," Prince says. "But regardless of the verdict, the horse is out of the barn. There is a dialogue started, and that is only going to grow and develop."
Clemons says he was stopped on the street recently by a white man who warned him to watch his back because "you ain't no Martin Luther King."
"I told him he was right," Clemons said in an interview. "I told him I didn't believe in nonviolence."
Neshoba can be a pretty place. It's a rural spot of timberlands, pastures and about 28,000 souls, on a branch of the Pearl River. It's not near anything. The county seat, Philadelphia, is about 7,500. It's two-thirds white, 20 percent black and the rest Choctaw.
Drive around, you see neatly kept green lawns and pink petunias by the driveway. So long as you don't break the local taboo against mentioning the civil rights murders, everyone gets along better than people elsewhere think.
Integration, after the disaster of the killings, actually went off pretty smoothly, many locals say. The attempt to set up a whites-only academy failed. Last week one of the city's summer league baseball games progressed in almost absurdly balanced racial fashion. The pitcher was white, the catcher black, the players in the field a variety, and two umpires called the outs -- one white and one black. When the last out was recorded in the deepening twilight, black and white parents in the stands, seated next to one another, leaped to applaud.
Regarding the trial, "the tension isn't coming from the black community," says James Young, a Pentecostal minister and the only black member of the Neshoba County board of supervisors. "We're not threatening anybody. . . . There's still a glass ceiling here. You're only going to go so far. The trial isn't going to fix everything, but it will be a turning point, a stopping point and a beginning point, all rolled into one."
The state legislature recently passed a law renaming a section of a local highway for the slain civil rights workers. When Young made a routine motion to endorse the measure, his white colleagues just looked at him. The motion died for lack of a second.
"You'd have to ask them about it," Young said.
Calls to two members, attempting to do just that, were not returned.
There are a lot of people in this county -- many of them white, of a certain age -- who do not want this trial to happen.
One is Hugh Thomasson. He is one of the 10 percent of county residents who have a college degree. He runs a timber company on the outside of town. Thinks the trial is a politically correct travesty. Ask him to describe what happened June 21, 1964: "I think one bunch of fools came down here looking for trouble, and found another group of fools who gave it to them."
There are worries around town about violence. You hear the word "outsiders" a lot. Standing in a light rainfall near the Mount Zion church, a black man says he just can't give his name to a reporter.
"I got my job, my life down here to think about," he said. "Hell, I got a wife."
A bomb threat shut down the courthouse during the arraignment in January. In the melee, Killen's 63-year-old brother jumped a television cameraman. A colleague, a diminutive black reporter from the capital in Jackson, then slammed Killen the younger to the ground.
An old man who lives near Killen hit a British reporter with an iron pipe last week. The 73-year-old trial judge has declined bodyguards, declaring himself to be "a two-fisted kind of guy."
Back in the day, Killen was what people here call a jackleg preacher, a two-bit sawmill operator and a piece of work. In the mid-1970s he did five months in prison for threatening to kill a man.
Now he sits there in his black coat and shaved head, the morning turning to afternoon. His mouth falls into a frown. Whether this is from jowly pouches around the cheekbones or from emotional disposition it is not possible to tell.
For the next week or so, as the trial unfolds, the murders will be discussed publicly here more than perhaps they ever have been or ever will be again.
What happens if the old man is acquitted and walks out of the courthouse, cackling? Will things be worse? What happens if he's convicted? Will things be better?
Preacher Killen, alone in the dock, setting all these emotions into play.
But maybe, just maybe, it's not just Killen alone up there on trial.
Maybe it's a small town with a big reputation, worried about past sins coming to light. In the 1967 trial, a Klansman who testified for the government said that there was a Klan meeting the day Mount Zion Church was burned. The prosecutor asked how many people were there.
"I would say more than 75," the man said.
How many of those folks you figure are still around? How many elderly white people in town lie easy in their sleep when it comes to those killings?
Who is to say, and who is to atone for the past? Was Faulkner right? Is the past never even past? What happens when ghosts are hauled into the daylight?
Mississippi and Preacher Killen, wondering if there is a tomorrow in this place after all.