THE CONVICTION by a Mississippi jury of Edgar Ray Killen in connection with the murders of three civil rights workers in 1964 comes four decades late. It comes on the wrong charge -- three counts of manslaughter, instead of murder, in one of the most infamous crimes of an era full of infamous violence. The other living conspirators have not even been indicted and probably won't be tried. In short, the infuriating history of this case -- in which Mississippi authorities for years declined to seek justice and federal authorities only marginally filled the void -- makes for a verdict this week that is far less than satisfactory.
Yet we would not disparage the conviction as too little, too late. Indeed, the pursuit of justice so long after the fact -- especially so long after the fact -- sends an important message: Time can bring neither forgiveness nor amnesty for the brutality of Mr. Killen and others who conducted a reign of terror in the civil rights era.
For decades Mr. Killen's involvement in the killings has been no secret. A preacher and sawmill operator, Mr. Killen helped organize the mob of Klansmen who ambushed James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, shot them and buried them. The three came to Philadelphia, Miss., to investigate the burning of a black church and were arrested on their arrival for speeding, then released and attacked by the mob. Mr. Killen, along with numerous others, was prosecuted federally for having violated their civil rights -- but a jury could not reach a verdict in Mr. Killen's trial in 1967 because one juror refused to convict a preacher.
Since then, Mr. Killen, who is now 80, has lived neither in hiding nor in disgrace. He has lived openly and prominently -- and as a defiant racist -- even as Mississippi changed. Somehow, even long after the state left behind violent, state-sponsored white supremacy, it managed to ignore the crimes of those who took up arms to defend segregation.
It is partly the rejection of this attitude that makes Mr. Killen's trial -- and others like it -- so important. A multiracial group of townspeople known as the Philadelphia Coalition pushed the state to reopen the case, and an interracial jury convicted him, deeming the stale evidence adequate for a manslaughter conviction if not for the murder conviction the state had sought. Late and imperfect? Absolutely. But as long as people like Mr. Killen are alive, it is never too late for society to register its disgust with their actions and make them answer, however incompletely, for their crimes.