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Mississippi Terror 

Roses for an unmarked killing field

It was an impulse, stopping at a florist in Philadelphia, Mississippi, on a pilgrimage south down State Road 19. I bought three white roses. Two months ago, scoping out the town where three civil rights workers had been killed in 1964, I'd found the now-deserted food store on SR 19 where Ku Klux Klansmen had stopped the activists.

But it wasn't until this week that I found the off-the-main-road site, about two miles from where the chase ended, that became a killing field. No marker recounts the sensational tragedy. Even accident victims get little crosses along the roadsides, but not slain toilers for liberty.

The three voter registration workers — New Yorkers Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney from Meridian, Mississippi — had been arrested on trumped-up traffic charges, and then freed late in the evening of June 21, 1964. The release by local cops was coordinated with the Klan, whose members followed the three men.

After forcing the activists off of SR 19, the Klansmen drove Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman back to where County Road 515 branches off. CR 515 winds about a half mile before forking with CR 284. It was at that fork that the three courageous young men were murdered.

I don't know if someone had planned to cover up what happened at that nondescript junction, but where the blood actually spilled there are now merely electric transformer boxes sitting atop a concrete slab. I put the three roses on the ground next to the slab. I shuddered trying to imagine the three men's final minutes of terror.

Edgar Ray Killen — an 80-year-old, part-time Baptist preacher — went on trial Monday for the 1964 killings. He was tried in 1967 on federal civil rights charges — and the jury couldn't reach a decision. The vote was 11-1 — the lone dissent came from a woman who couldn't believe a minister would kill people.

Killen lives on SR 515, only about a mile down the rural road from the murder scene. I walked up to his front door; no answer although I could hear voices inside. Across the road, a one-armed man wouldn't give his name, but confirmed his neighbor was Killen. He told me I'd better leave. Good advice. Two weeks ago, a British journalist knocked on the door of one of Killen's neighbors and was assaulted by a man wielding a metal pipe.

A brown car followed me after I left Killen's house. I turned in a driveway and went back toward SR 19. The brown car stayed on my tail. I stopped where I'd left the flowers. They were gone. I don't think it was the birds.

Killen is accused of being the mastermind of the assassinations. He allegedly pre-selected the spot for the killings. I wanted to ask him what he thinks when he drives by the junction. I noticed that across from his house is a Ten Commandments yard sign. I wanted to ask him about the Sixth Commandment.

GUTS IN THE FACE OF HATRED

Stanley Dearman doesn't just enter the editor's office at the Neshoba Democrat. A little slow with age, he still steps with the confidence of a captain on a ship's bridge. He fiddles with a green apple, and moves a copy of the newspaper so that, when he's photographed, the banner and headlines are prominent. "The paper's more important than I am," the avuncular Dearman says with a wink.

It isn't really his office or his journal any longer, not that the staff members seem to notice as they shower Dearman with warmth and deference.

Dearman sold the paper in 2000, ending a 34-year gig that embraced the defining years of the "new" Mississippi. It's also the time that Philadelphia and Neshoba County wrestled with the legacy of one of the vilest acts committed by the Ku Klux Klansmen: the murder of three voting rights activists, Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney.

In October 1967, seven Klansmen were convicted in federal court of conspiracy. Nine others were acquitted, and the jury couldn't reach a verdict on three, including a part-time Baptist preacher named Edgar Ray Killen.

"In the 60s, a state trial would have been a mockery," Dearman says. "Juries were mostly white men, and the jury pool was hand-picked by the county board of supervisors, whose major mission in those days was extorting kickbacks from road builders."

Now, 41 years after the triple murder, Killen is being tried for the crimes.

Dearman didn't buy the Democrat until two years after the slayings. It took courage for him to change the course of a newspaper whose previous editor had declared two months before the murders: "Outsiders who come in here and try to stir up trouble should be dealt with in a manner they won't forget."

"In 1964, I was working for the Meridian Star," Dearman recalls. "On June 22, the managing editor told me, 'Schwerner is missing.' I still have a very vivid image of Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney. I remember Schwerner going into the Meridian Police Department. A cop told me that he often came in just to talk."

Dearman is a native of Meridian, 60 miles south of Philadelphia. He pauses, shakes his head, and says: "I don't think Schwerner realized the police department was wall-to-wall Klan."

Municipal rivalry ignites when folks in Philadelphia talk about the murders, the trial in '67 and the one now, and about the Klan.

In the book Witness in Philadelphia by Mississippi author Florence Mars, I found an editorial Dearman wrote the day after the verdicts 38 years ago. It stated:

"What was disclosed in the testimony of the trial was a Meridian... plot to 'eliminate' civil rights worker Michael Schwerner. ... It was necessary, in cases of 'elimination' by the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, to get approval of Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers.

"This 'elimination' was executed outside the environs of Meridian ... because Meridian did not want the resulting black eye that Neshoba got."

That editorial also decried media depictions of "a bunch of rednecks standing in tight little knots on the streets of Philadelphia."

The 1967 trial contained testimony that the Neshoba klavern, or Klan chapter, had been enlisted in what was termed the "Meridian plot." On the other hand, Killen, a Neshoba resident and alleged mastermind of the atrocity, recruited Meridian Klansmen only after the Philadelphia police had arrested the civil rights workers on bogus traffic charges.

The finger pointing annoys Dearman. Calling the argument "pointless," he wrote in 1967: "Neshoba County or Meridian ... are no more responsible for this case than Dallas for the murder of a president."

When I ask Dearman about those sentiments, he points out that race hatred is a disease that didn't have municipal boundaries. "I have always wanted people to understand that what happened here was far bigger than a few bigots in one town."

The bickering between the Mississippi towns still continues. Naming a road, for example, can resurrect unwanted associations with political ramifications.

A stretch of State Road 19 — where Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney were captured by the Klan — was named earlier this year for the activists.

"You know where the name stops?" Dearman asks. "At the Neshoba County line. Why? Because a state legislator, Tommy Horne from Meridian, his daddy was rounded up by the FBI in the case" (but never tried). "Horne knocked it in the head, naming the entire road for Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman. Hell, the two triggermen came from Meridian. It should have a share of the name."

When I ask Dearman about the town's long-lacerated emotions, he's quiet for a minute. He picks up the green apple, looks through it — maybe at memories four decades old. Setting it down, he shakes his head and says:

"I hope the trial will tell the nation that enough people who cared about justice worked for a long time to make this happen. The state finally did its duty, although it's really a terrible thing it wasn't done before."

Will it end the hatred?

"Probably not. The Klan, people of that mentality, are still around. Quite a few, I'd guess. A lot of them are ready to shoot me now. I'm not scared of them. I never was scared of them."

CL Group senior editor John Sugg is covering the trial of Edgar Ray Killen. Read more on the trial at www.johnsugg.com.

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