They got Edgar Ray yesterday. Not the black people he so detests. Not the reporters from New York and Washington and London, whom he loves to taunt and threatens to shoot. Not the card-carrying ACLU commies.
No, it was Edgar Ray Killen's Neshoba County neighbors -- conservative white folk who vote Republican in overwhelming numbers -- who dropped the hammer on him in the Philadelphia, Miss., courthouse.
And lifted a historical weight from themselves.
The jury of his peers was nine whites and three blacks. Guilty, they said, 12-0, three times, on counts of manslaughter.
Guilty: They said it on June 21, 2005, the 41st anniversary of the killings of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman.
I grew up in rural Mississippi not far from Philadelphia. The Killen trial was more than a trial, it was also a moral searchlight illuminating Neshoba County's past. I was born a few months after Medgar Evers was shot to death and a few months before these slayings. I grew up hearing the dead men described as "two Jews and a [racial epithet]." They were routinely portrayed as troublemakers who more or less got what they deserved, as if they were kids who had deliberately hit a beehive, and then were surprised they got stung.
So I came back home to wander around Neshoba for a week before Killen's trial began. I wanted to see how the local folk -- black, white and Choctaw Indian -- viewed the trial and the national attention descending upon their little town. It was, I have to say, sobering. There was a multiracial coalition that pushed for the trial, for closure, for what might be called racial reconciliation. They were truly admirable people.
But there was also a lot of apathy and surly attitudes. Whites tended to be exasperated -- almost all of them I spoke to, no matter their age, resented how they were portrayed in the national media, as if the media had some how made them the victims in all this. Many of them didn't see a point in having a trial for a case so old. Conversely, it must be said that the courthouse was not packed with black residents who wanted to see justice finally served on one of their tormentors.
But guilty, they said.
It was, for a small town in a small place, a day of history. It was the first time anyone had been charged with murder in the slayings that gave this town its international reputation. (The 1967 federal trial, in which seven men were convicted of violating the dead men's civil rights, was held in Meridian, in another county about 40 miles south.)
It wasn't pretty. It wasn't textbook. Mississippi small-town scraps rarely are. So: Guilty, they said, but with a twist. They convicted the 80-year-old Klansman of manslaughter, which didn't really fit the charges. The prosecution looked for an up-or-down verdict on murder in the first degree. But this jury wound up in between, saying guilty to charges that leave the part-time preacher and convicted felon (he did five months in prison in the 1970s for threatening to kill a man) facing a sentence of anywhere from three to 60 years.
The compromise made a certain amount of sense in Mississippi in general and Neshoba County in particular.
"It's not a perfect verdict, but it wasn't a perfect case, either," Mark Duncan, the local district attorney who prosecuted the case along with the state attorney general, said at a televised news conference after the verdict.
"Of the four people testifying against Mr. Killen, three of them were dead. . . . I'm not going to criticize" the jury. It's a fair legal point, and also a fair cultural one. There was no physical evidence linking Killen to the crime, nor was there any testimony that he was present when the young men were killed. Most of the testimony was from Klan informants who had been paid for their court appearances by the FBI. If you're looking for reasonable doubt, that is something to hang your hat on, and not just in Mississippi.
Further, this case has never rested easy here, particularly among the conservative, churchgoing white population, who remembered only too clearly what happened in 1964. It wasn't just a triple homicide by some local roughnecks. What made the story so shocking was that local police officers were Klan members who participated in the slayings. Afterward, no one in Neshoba would help the FBI. Reporters were treated with contempt. The state refused to press murder charges.
The 1964 killings took on iconic status in national history. They were also the worst thing that ever happened in this very small, very poor town. Time passed, schools were integrated and things moved on, but the killings remained a raw subject. Anyone knowing that history had reason to wonder if prosecutors here would find a Neshoba jury that would vote to convict anyone of the slayings. In fact, it sometimes seemed to me as if a hung jury would be inevitable.
Remember: In 1980, Ronald Reagan managed to find this lost little corner of eastern Mississippi to make his first full-scale campaign speech after winning the Republican presidential nomination. He gave a speech about "states' rights" -- the byword for segregationists -- just a few miles from where the bodies of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman had been buried. Cynical? Yes. Successful? Wildly. Reagan carried Neshoba County in a landslide (not to mention the rest of the Deep South, over Georgia's own Jimmy Carter).
In 1989, Neshoba County's facade began to crack when Dick Molpus made an unscripted, moving apology to the families of the three dead civil rights workers at a 25th anniversary memorial service. Molpus was not only the Mississippi secretary of state but also a native of Neshoba County, from one of the area's most respected families. Six years later, when Molpus, a Democrat, was running for governor, his Republican opponent came to Neshoba and ridiculed him for apologizing to the mothers of the three dead boys. Neshobans reacted by voting en masse for Kirk Fordice, the Republican opponent.
"It didn't cost me the election," Molpus said in a telephone interview, "but it did cost me votes."
So were there 12, black and white, who would come together to not let Edgar Ray Killen get away scot-free?
Were there 12 who would decide publicly what everyone knew privately?
Yes, it turns out, as we all found out yesterday morning, mildly surprised. There were -- and most of them his white neighbors. No, it wasn't pretty. No, it wasn't textbook. Past the sunsets, the sweet tea and the lightning bugs in the early dusk, out beyond the porch swing and beneath the pines, Mississippi small towns rarely are.