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Mississippi still seeks justice and redemption

PHILADELPHIA, Miss. _ A reputed Ku Klux Klansman was arrested late Thursday on murder charges in the 1964 killing of three voter-registration volunteers _ a case that is one of the last pieces of unfinished business from the civil rights era.

_ THE ASSOCIATED PRESS, Jan. 6, 2005

Every time I see Philadelphia, Miss., in the news, I think of the cottonmouth moccasin in an ice chest used by reporters and photographers covering civil rights marches in some of the ugliest days of our nation's history. The moccasin, I soon discovered, was not nearly as poisonous or deadly as the local Klansmen who terrorized and murdered civil rights workers, sometimes in collusion with local law enforcement officers.

Local racists put the snake in the chest when we stopped for ice at a country store just outside Philadelphia, the seat of Neshoba County. After that, I decided it was better to drink a warm Coke than to open an ice chest. As a young intern reporter for Newsweek magazine, I found myself in Philadelphia almost two years after the 1964 murder of three civil rights workers whose bodies were buried in an earthen dam. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led a ragged but brave column of marchers to Philadelphia's town square for a rally. As local whites, held back by state police, hurled racial epithets and rocks and bottles into the crowd of civil rights activists, Dr. King raised his powerful voice and said he could sense the presence of the murderers of the three civil rights workers in the square.

A voice rang out from behind the police lines. "We're right over here," someone shouted, as the white hecklers laughed and hooted.

I had not a doubt that the killers were in voice range. There was no reason to believe then that the murderers of James Chaney, a 21-year-old black Mississippian, and two white New Yorkers, Andrew Goodman, 20, and Michael Schwerner, 24, would ever be brought to justice for a hateful crime that outraged the nation.

In 1967, the U.S. Justice Department brought civil rights prosecutions against 18 suspects, including reputed Klansman Edgar Ray Killen, Neshoba County Sheriff Lawrence Rainey and Deputy Cecil Price, after Mississippi officials showed little interest in seeking murder indictments in the case. Seven were convicted and sentenced to prison terms from three to 10 years. None served more than six years. Killen escaped conviction by an 11-to-1 jury deadlock. The holdout was a woman who said she could never convict a preacher of the Gospel, which Killen claimed to be.

Last week, Killen, now 79, was arrested and charged with the murder of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner. Other arrests could follow, but justice can never be fully served in this case because some of the killers went to their graves without being brought to account. The case was reopened in 1999 by the Mississippi attorney general after the Clarion-Ledger newspaper in Jackson broke new ground in the case.

For 41 years, the killers got on with their small, twisted lives. They raised families and went to church. Those still living have become old men. You have to wonder what it must feel like to come to the end of life burdened by an evil secret that ultimately will be judged, if not in this world, in the next. How can their souls ever rest in peace? They will have to answer for their unspeakable crimes before their God, who gave them a conscience they somehow lost in the racism of the time.

Killen's indictment is the latest attempt by Mississippi to reach back over the years and reopen long-ago civil rights murder cases in the name of justice and redemption. In 1994, Bryan de la Beckwith was convicted for the 1963 murder of Medgar Evers, a field secretary for the NAACP shot in the back as he got out of his car in the driveway of his home. These cases are hard to prosecute. Witnesses have died, evidence has disappeared and memories have grown dim. But how can we not seek justice as long as a shred of evidence exists, a witness still lives and a suspect still walks among us?

Not surprisingly, some Mississippians were quoted in news reports as saying they see no point in reopening the case after all these years, that nothing good can come from it. But as usual, John Lewis, the Georgia congressman and civil rights hero, said it best: "It is never, ever too late to bring about justice and send the strongest possible message that bigotry and hate will not be tolerated in our society."

Philip Gailey's e-mail address is gaileysptimes.com.

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