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Mothers at last see arrest in sons' deaths

Published Aug. 24, 2005

After 40 years, after all the ceremonies, the visits to Mississippi, the media interviews, the strokes, the deaths of loved ones, births of grandchildren and the simple march of time, the news came, and the two mothers, separated by 80 miles but locked together in history, came to realize the obvious. Their sons had not come back, but a painful period of their lives, and civil rights history, had.

Both in their 80s, they carried themselves Friday with aplomb, and a bit of resignation, having believed for so long that someday, maybe, somebody would be charged with the murders of their sons, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney, and a companion, Michael Schwerner. They were young men _ Goodman and Schwerner, white New Yorkers, and Chaney, a black Mississippian _ killed in 1964 during a voter registration drive in Mississippi in a crime that shocked the conscience of the country. On Thursday, Edgar Ray Killen, a longtime leader of the Ku Klux Klan, was charged with the murders.

The stooped, frail-looking 79-year-old was brought into court Friday. His head slightly tilted, he uttered a strong "not guilty" three times to three murder charges in a case that marks the latest effort by Mississippi to confront its past as one of America's most fiercely segregationist states.

The federal government tried Killen and 18 other men on civil rights charges in 1967; Killen went free after an all-white jury came back deadlocked.

Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood and District Attorney Mark Duncan would not discuss what evidence they developed or exactly what role authorities believe Killen had in the killings, which galvanized public opinion in 1964 and were dramatized in the 1988 movie Mississippi Burning.

Fannie Lee Chaney, 82, dressed for a doctor's appointment early Friday and spoke of her son James and the recent turn of events in her tidy bungalow in Willingboro, N.J. She fled Mississippi in 1965 after her house was shot at amid other threats.

She said she knew Killen, the first person to face murder charges in the 40-year-old killings. He was the preacher, she said, who came to the home of a white woman Chaney was cleaning for shortly after the murders. A young boy came in the kitchen, where Chaney was washing the dishes, and asked her if she had heard the preacher's words: "God bless the black hands."

She had, she said.

"Oh yeah," she said, bristling. "I never could forget."

Carolyn Goodman, 89, living in the same apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side where she raised her son, meticulously prepared her breakfast of sliced bananas and English muffins as her telephone trilled and a friend scrambled to organize a cavalcade of media interviews. She wanted to make one thing clear, that all along she was after justice, not revenge.

"I am not an eye-for-an-eye person," said Goodman, a clinical psychologist. "I want justice to be done, that he and the others involved be off the streets."

She recalled the time one man implicated in the case _ she could not remember his full name _ rang her doorbell several years ago, begging for forgiveness.

"Of course I forgave him," she said, shocked anyone would think otherwise. "He said that was all he wanted to hear and he left."

Schwerner was raised in suburban Pelham, N.Y. His parents died in the 1990s, but on Friday his brother, Stephen A. Schwerner, sought to absorb the news. He said he wanted a wider investigation of the case but he declined to describe his personal reaction.

"It's been a policy of the Schwerner family not to discuss such matters," he said.

Schwerner's voice betrayed no anger, even when he slowly and deliberately said, "If three black men had been killed, it might not have made the inside pages, let alone the front page."

A retired humanities professor at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, he once taught a course on the civil rights movement, invoking his own family's tragic involvement.

"What's important for students to realize," Schwerner said, "is that this was not ancient history, people still alive were involved in this and that we still have a long, long way to go."

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Edgar Ray Killen, 38 at the time the workers died, denies any role in the killings. He was a Baptist preacher and Klan leader.

Michael Schwerner, 24, was raised in suburban Pelham, New York. He was a married civil rights worker with a degree from Cornell.

James Chaney, 21, also a paid civil rights worker, was a native of Meridian, Miss., and the oldest son in a family of five children.

Civil rights worker Andrew Goodman, 20, grew up in a well-to-do Manhattan household and had attended Queens College.

SOURCE: Web site by Doug Linder of University of Missouri at Kansas City Law School.