Edgar Ray Killen, a KKK leader, was con­victed in the killings of three civil rights work­ers.

The Washington Post - - METRO - BY MATT SCHUDEL matt.schudel@wash­post.com

Edgar Ray Killen, a Mis­sis­sippi preacher and Ku Klux Klan leader who four decades af­ter the fact was con­victed in the killing of three civil rights work­ers dur­ing the Free­dom Sum­mer of 1964, died Jan. 11 at the Mis­sis­sippi State Pen­i­ten­tiary near Parch­man. He was 92 and was serv­ing a sen­tence of 60 years.

The state cor­rec­tions de­part­ment an­nounced the death. The cause was not im­me­di­ately known.

The slay­ings of the three civil rights work­ers — James Chaney, An­drew Good­man and Michael Sch­w­erner — were among the most no­to­ri­ous events of the civil rights era and formed the ba­sis for the 1988 film “Mis­sis­sippi Burn­ing,” which starred Gene Hack­man and Willem Dafoe as FBI in­ves­ti­ga­tors.

The killings oc­curred in Neshoba County, Miss., which had a long rep­u­ta­tion as a cen­ter of Klan vi­o­lence. Mr. Killen, whose fam­ily had lived in the area for gen­er­a­tions, op­er­ated a sawmill, preached at Bap­tist churches and owned a small farm about 15 miles from the county seat of Philadel­phia, Miss.

On June 21, 1964, Chaney, Good­man and Sch­w­erner were in Neshoba County to in­spect a black church that had been burned down and to regis­ter vot­ers as part of a civil rights ef­fort known as Free­dom Sum­mer. As the three men were driv­ing, a deputy sher­iff pulled over their sta­tion wagon on the pre­text of speed­ing and took them to the county jail. They were re­leased at 10 p.m. and told to get out of the county as fast as pos­si­ble.

They were fol­lowed by two cars filled with Klans­men, who had been alerted and or­ga­nized by Mr. Killen, ac­cord­ing to court ev­i­dence. Af­ter a high-speed chase on a dark high­way, the civil rights work­ers were over­taken on Rock Cut Road — less than two miles from Mr. Killen’s home — forced from their car and shot to death at close range.

Their bod­ies were not dis­cov­ered for 44 days. A search led by the FBI even­tu­ally found them buried 15 feet deep in an earthen dam on a nearby farm.

Chaney, 21, was an African Amer­i­can from Mis­sis­sippi. Good­man, 20, and Sch­w­erner, 24, were white New York­ers. Their deaths, widely chron­i­cled in the me­dia, sparked out­rage and were a ma­jor turn­ing point in the civil rights move­ment. Within two weeks, Pres­i­dent Lyn­don B. John­son signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Mr. Killen, who was known to be a Klan or­ga­nizer or “Klea­gle,” came un­der im­me­di­ate sus­pi­cion. He was among 18 lo­cal men, in­clud­ing po­lice of­fi­cers, later ar­rested by fed­eral agents and tried for con­spir­acy.

Tes­ti­mony from the 1967 trial de­scribed Mr. Killen as the ring­leader who co­or­di­nated the vig­i­lante Klan group, al­though he was not present for the killings.

Seven Klans­men were con­victed of con­spir­acy, but Mr. Killen was ac­quit­ted. The all-white jury re­port­edly voted 11-to-1 in fa­vor of con­vict­ing him, but the lone hold­out said she could “never con­vict a preacher.”

Mr. Killen re­turned to his nor­mal life in Neshoba County.

He rarely gave in­ter­views, but in 1998 he sat down with the New York Times. With­out di­rectly ad­dress­ing whether he was in­volved in the killings of Chaney, Good­man and Sch­w­erner, he said: “Those boys were Com­mu­nists who went to a Com­mu­nist train­ing school. I’m sorry they got them­selves killed. But I can’t show re­morse for some­thing I didn’t do.”

In­ter­est in the case was re­vived by “Mis­sis­sippi Burn­ing” and by the re­port­ing of Jerry Mitchell of the Jack­son (Miss.) Clar­i­onLedger. In 1998, Mitchell learned of a se­cret taped in­ter­view in which a Klan leader, Sam Bow­ers, said “the main in­sti­ga­tor” of the 1964 killings was still a free man.

Fur­ther in­ves­ti­ga­tions led to Mr. Killen, who went on trial for mur­der in a state court in 2005. Mr. Killen, 80 at the time, was in a wheelchair as he re­cov­ered from two bro­ken legs suf­fered while cut­ting wood.

Be­fore the jury be­gan de­lib­er­at­ing, pros­e­cu­tors added man­slaugh­ter to the orig­i­nal mur­der charges. In the end, Mr. Killen was con­victed of three counts of man­slaugh­ter. The ver­dict was de­liv­ered on June 21, 2005 — 41 years to the day af­ter the killings.

Mr. Killen was given the max­i­mum sen­tence of three con­sec­u­tive terms of 20 years, for a to­tal of 60 years in prison.

Edgar Ray Killen was born Jan. 17, 1925, in Union, Miss., where his fam­ily had been in­volved in log­ging, lum­ber and farm­ing since the 19th cen­tury.

De­tails about his early life are sketchy. He was mar­ried twice but had no chil­dren. He said he was an or­dained min­is­ter and was a pas­tor at sev­eral churches. He was con­victed in 1976 of threat­en­ing a woman by tele­phone.

Al­though he did not ad­mit to be­ing a mem­ber of the Klan, he had been known to fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tors and other Klan watch­ers for decades.

In 1968, af­ter the as­sas­si­na­tion of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Mem­phis, FBI agents knocked on Mr. Killen’s door, seek­ing in­for­ma­tion. As the agents were about to leave, Mr. Killen asked whether they had iden­ti­fied the killer.

He added, “Man, I just want to shake his hand.”


Edgar Ray Killen, front, is seen out­side the Neshoba County De­ten­tion Cen­ter in Philadel­phia, Miss., on Jan. 12, 2005.

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