‘Mis­sis­sippi Burn­ing’ KKK leader Edgar Ray Killen dies in prison

The Western Star - - OBITUARIES -

Edgar Ray Killen, a 1960s Ku Klux Klan leader who was con­victed decades later in the “Mis­sis­sippi Burn­ing’’ slay­ings of three civil rights work­ers, has died in prison at the age of 92, the state’s cor­rec­tions depart­ment an­nounced Fri­day.

Killen was serv­ing three con­sec­u­tive 20-year terms for manslaughter when he died at 9 p.m. Thurs­day in­side the Mis­sis­sippi State Pen­i­ten­tiary at Parch­man. An au­topsy was pend­ing, but no foul play was sus­pected, the state­ment said.

His con­vic­tion came 41 years to the day af­ter James Chaney, Michael Sch­w­erner and An­drew Good­man, all in their 20s, were am­bushed and killed by Klans­men.

The three Free­dom Sum­mer work­ers had been in­ves­ti­gat­ing the burn­ing of a black church near Philadel­phia, Mis­sis­sippi. A deputy sher­iff in Philadel­phia had ar­rested them on a traf­fic charge, then re­leased them af­ter alert­ing a mob. Mis­sis­sippi’s then-gov­er­nor claimed their dis­ap­pear­ance was a hoax, and seg­re­ga­tion­ist Sen. Jim East­land told President Lyn­don John­son it was a “pub­lic­ity stunt’’ be­fore their bod­ies were dug up.

The slay­ings shocked the na­tion, helped spur pas­sage of the land­mark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and were dra­ma­tized in the 1988 movie “Mis­sis­sippi Burn­ing.’’ The movie ti­tle came from the name of the FBI in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Killen, a part-time preacher and lum­ber mill op­er­a­tor, was 80 when a Neshoba County jury of nine white peo­ple and three black peo­ple con­victed him of three counts of manslaughter on June 21, 2005, de­spite his as­ser­tions that he was in­no­cent. Prose­cu­tors said Killen mas­ter­minded the slay­ings, then went else­where so he would have an alibi.

Killen was the only per­son ever to face state mur­der charges, and even then, it was the lesser charge of manslaughter that put him in state prison.

“It wasn’t even mur­der. It was manslaughter,’’ David Good­man, An­drew’s younger brother, ob­served Fri­day.

“His life spanned a pe­riod in this coun­try where mem­bers of the Ku Klux Klan like him were able to be­lieve they had a right to take other peo­ple’s lives, and that’s a form of ter­ror­ism,’’ Good­man said. “Many took black lives with im­punity.’’

Sch­w­erner, a white New Yorker, moved to Mis­sis­sippi in early 1964 to work on black voter registration and other projects. Chaney was a black Mis­sis­sip­pian who be­friended him. An­drew Good­man, an­other white New Yorker, un­der­went civil­rights train­ing in Ohio and ar­rived in Mis­sis­sippi a day be­fore he, Sch­w­erner and Chaney were killed. In­ves­ti­ga­tors search­ing for their bod­ies found bod­ies of other black men who had been killed in Mis­sis­sippi, in­clud­ing two who were bru­tal­ized be­fore be­ing dumped in the Mis­sis­sippi River.

Sch­w­erner’s widow, Rita Sch­w­erner Bender, said on the day Killen was con­victed that the slay­ings were part of a larger prob­lem of vi­o­lence in Mis­sis­sippi against black peo­ple and others who chal­lenged the segre- gation­ist sta­tus quo.

“Preacher Killen did not act in a vac­uum and the mem­bers of the Klan who were mem­bers of the po­lice depart­ment and the sher­iff’s depart­ment and the high­way pa­trol didn’t act in a vac­uum,’’ she said.

Good­man said Fri­day that Killen’s pass­ing is a re­minder that is­sues of racism and white na­tion­al­ism re­main to­day. He pointed to the vi­o­lent rally of white na­tion­al­ists in Char­lottesville, Vir­ginia, as an ex­am­ple.

Killen wouldn’t say much about the killings dur­ing a 2014 in­ter­view with The As­so­ci­ated Press in­side the pen­i­ten­tiary. He said he re­mained a seg­re­ga­tion­ist who did not be­lieve in racial equal­ity, but con­tended he har­boured no ill will to­ward black peo­ple. Killen said he never had talked about the events that landed him be­hind bars, and never would.

Long a sus­pect in the 1964 slay­ings, Killen had made a liveli­hood from farm­ing, op­er­at­ing his sawmill and preaching to a small con­gre­ga­tion at Smyrna Bap­tist Church in Union, south of Philadel­phia, Mis­sis­sippi.

Ac­cord­ing to FBI files and court tran­scripts from a 1967 fed­eral con­spir­acy trial, Killen did most of the plan­ning in the am­bush killings of the civil rights work­ers. Ac­cord­ing to tes­ti­mony in the 2005 mur­der trial, Killen served as a klea­gle, or or­ga­nizer, of the Klan in Neshoba County and helped set up a klav­ern, or lo­cal Klan group, in a nearby county.

Nine­teen men, in­clud­ing Killen, were in­dicted on fed­eral charges in the 1967 case. Seven were con­victed of vi­o­lat­ing the vic­tims’ civil rights. None served more than six years.

Killen’s fed­eral case ended with a hung jury af­ter one ju­ror said she couldn’t con­vict a preacher. Dur­ing his state trial in 2005, wit­nesses tes­ti­fied that on June 21, 1964, Killen went to Merid­ian to round up car­loads of Klans­men to am­bush Sch­w­erner, Chaney and Good­man, telling some of the Klan mem­bers to bring plas­tic or rub­ber gloves. Wit­nesses said Killen then went to a Philadel­phia fu­neral home as an alibi while the fa­tal at­tack oc­curred.

The three bod­ies were found 44 days later, buried in a red-clay dam in ru­ral Neshoba County.

In Fe­bru­ary 2010, Killen sued the FBI, claim­ing the gov­ern­ment used a mafia hit man to pis­tol-whip and in­tim­i­date wit­nesses for in­for­ma­tion in the case. The fed­eral law­suit sought mil­lions of dol­lars in dam­ages and a dec­la­ra­tion that his rights were vi­o­lated when the FBI al­legedly used a gang­ster known as “The Grim Reaper’’ dur­ing the in­ves­ti­ga­tion. The law­suit was later dis­missed.

In the AP in­ter­view, Killen re­peated his con­tention that he was not a crim­i­nal, but a po­lit­i­cal pris­oner. He spoke of his many friends, Sen. East­land among them. Of one thing he was cer­tain: “I could have beat that thing if I’d had the men­tal abil­ity.’’

When she learned of Killen’s death, Chaney’s sis­ter, the Rev. Ju­lia Chaney Moss, said her first thought was that “God has been kind to him. And for that I am grate­ful.’’

“My last thought on this is just that I only wish peace and bless­ings for all the fam­i­lies as well as the fam­i­lies of the per­pe­tra­tors,’’ she said.


Edgar Ray Killen sits in court in Philadel­phia, Miss. Killen, a for­mer Ku Klux Klan leader who was con­victed in the 1964 “Mis­sis­sippi Burn­ing” slay­ings of three civil rights work­ers, died in prison at the age of 92, the state’s cor­rec­tions depart­ment an­nounced Fri­day, Jan. 12, 2018.

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