PHILADELPHIA, Miss. (BP)–Jimmy Porter knows the apprehensions in his hometown of Philadelphia, Miss., as an alleged Ku Klux Klansman goes on trial for plotting the 1964 murders of three civil rights workers.
“It was a very difficult climate in which to try to have a trial back in the 1960s,” said Porter, executive director of the Mississippi Baptist Convention’s Christian Action Commission. “[But] there’s still a lot of uncertainty about it. A lot of people say, ‘What good’s going to come out of it?’ There’s a lot of questions in people’s minds.”
To Porter, who also is serving as an interim pastor of a church 15 miles from Philadelphia, “I look at it as a wound that will never heal until it’s cleaned out. And this, hopefully, will bring closure to it. It’s just something that would never go away and the people of Neshoba County would like to get beyond it.”
Jury selection began June 13 in the trial of Edgar Ray Killen, 80, an part-time independent Baptist preacher charged in the June 1964 slayings of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. Seven local men were convicted in the case in 1967 — among 18 charged. Killen’s trial on federal charges ended in a hung jury.
Dan Howard, pastor of Philadelphia’s First Baptist Church, also sees mixed emotions in the community about the proceedings, as some have questioned dredging up past unpleasantness, while others think the issue should be settled.
“There’s some healing that needs to be done,” said Howard, whose church is located two blocks from the courthouse where Killen is on trial. “I hope that it’s going to bring some kind of closure to this.”
The trial has prompted worldwide attention. Reporters from dozens of media outlets have descended on the town of 7,300, including crews from as far away as England, Sweden and South Korea.
Residents seem to be taking it in stride, Howard said. Beyond the media, there was no unusual influx of curiosity seekers the day jury selection began.
First Baptist has been praying for law enforcement officials and the community during Sunday and mid-week services, which Howard said symbolizes how Christians as a whole have helped bring healing to the area the past four decades.
First Baptist also has provided state highway patrol officers the use of its missionary house and offered them cakes and cookies. And the congregation gave the offering from its early June Vacation Bible School — approximately $500 — to Philadelphia’s police chief to help the department purchase meals for officers working overtime.
In addition, Howard chairs the social infrastructure task force under the Neshoba County Strategic Plan, a community initiative working to improve race relations and social conditions.
The pastor said one sign of how things have changed since 1964 is First Baptist’s congregation. Its numbers include a West African member and several regular African American visitors and children in its daycare facility.
“The wonderful thing about it is they’ve been welcomed,” Howard said. “People have openly received them and it’s not been a problem.”
Porter, noting that most area residents never associated with the Klan, countered a popular misconception that the KKK is as popular as it was in 1964. Instead, he said, the white supremacist organization is dying out amid a changing world.
“You’ve got people who are more aware that we have got to live in a world where there are going to be people who are different, whose ideas are different,” said Porter, who has been with the Christian Action Commission since 2000. “Times have changed. A lot of actions of people back in those days…were driven by fear.”
That fear particularly included change, he said. Looking back on his childhood, anything that came out of the North — two of the three victims were from New York — was suspect, Porter said.
During his high school days, Porter said nobody discussed disparities between black and white or African Americans’ voting problems. “Separate but equal” was just the way of life in the South, Porter said, acknowledging that things were not always equal.
Working with a man who delivered bread to black and white grocery stores at the time, Porter said he never experienced hostility or problems calling on any customers.
The killings of the civil rights workers “totally caught the whole town and county by surprise,” Porter said. “It was one of those things that you never dreamed…would happen.”
Today, Mississippi has moved far beyond 1964 in the area of race relations, said Porter, whose agency oversees moral concerns, including race.
While no state is perfect, Porter said there have been great strides since then, including multi-racial cooperation by various denominations.
“Whether people realize it or not, we do have African American Southern Baptist churches in Mississippi,” Porter said. “We work very closely with African American pastors, trying to provide leadership and help for them just like we would any other congregation. There’s been a concerted effort to try to work together and to minister to one another.”
Like Howard, Porter believes the church has gradually brought healing to the community.
A bivocational pastor immediately after graduating from high school in 1963, back then Porter commented on a radio station that if people had to use the cover of darkness and a sheet to hide their actions, it was wrong.
While Porter thought nothing of making that reference to the Klan, he said his parents were “scared stiff” until he came home later from visiting a friend.
“There were a lot of preachers who spoke out against it,” Porter said. “I do believe that because of the stand some of them have taken over the years, and the work that they’ve done, we’re in far better shape today.”
Howard, a native of Poplarville in southern Mississippi, also said considerable progress has occurred statewide during the past 41 years.
Philadelphians who were part of the community in 1964 have described a stressful time marked by considerable divisions, Howard said, but he sees signs that the past has lessened its grip.
Before coming here in 1997, Howard pastored a church in Woodville, located in the southwestern corner of Mississippi. With the county 65 percent African American, and black families living across the street, the Woodville church felt led to minister to its neighbors, Howard said.
About the same time a black Southern Baptist pastor from California moved into the area and helped lead a Backyard Bible Club the church started. That club is still going on, Howard said.
“For Woodville Baptist Church to take that step lets me know that things have progressed greatly,” Howard said. “I see that here, too. Our ministerial association works with black pastors [on] community Thanksgiving services and coming together for National Days of Prayer. There is a lot of interaction.”