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Town moves toward racial reconciliation with conviction of 80-year-old Klansman

PHILADELPHIA, Miss. (BP)–Another marker on the road to racial reconciliation in the United States was secured June 21 with the conviction of an 80-year-old former Ku Klux Klansman in the 1964 killings of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Miss.

“It’s one more step in healing a dark and painful past,” Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said after the verdict. “… I’m old enough to remember when the boys were buried under the dam, and I don’t think there was a decent American north or south that wasn’t horrified by what went on in Philadelphia, Miss. — ironically, the city of brotherly love.”

Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, white New Yorkers, and James Chaney, a black Mississippian, were working with the Congress of Racial Equality at a community center in Meridian, Miss., as part of an intensive voter registration drive in the south 41 years ago. They reportedly set out in a station wagon and were arrested for speeding by a deputy sheriff. The three were held long enough for a group of Klansmen to be rounded up, and after the trio’s release they were never seen alive again.

Forty-four days after they vanished, their bodies were found buried 15 feet beneath an earthen dam, beaten and shot. Eighteen Klansmen were charged with the crime, but just seven were convicted and sentenced to prison terms ranging from three to 10 years. Edgar Ray Killen’s 1967 trial ended in a hung jury.

But state prosecutors reopened Killen’s case in 1999 and arrested him earlier this year. A jury of nine whites and three blacks reached a decision on the second day of deliberations, convicting him on three counts of manslaughter. Sentencing is set for June 23, and Killen, a part-time independent Baptist preacher, faces up to 20 years on each count, according to The Clarion-Ledger newspaper in Jackson, Miss.

Prosecutors told The Clarion-Ledger that they were not disappointed that the jurors returned convictions on manslaughter instead of murder.

“We were asking a lot to have the jury convict someone of murder when three of our four main witnesses were dead,” said District Attorney Mark Duncan. “The jury held Edgar Ray Killen accountable.”

The Killen verdict becomes the 22nd conviction involving slayings from the civil rights era, beginning with the 1994 conviction of Byron De La Beckwith for the 1963 murder of NAACP leader Medgar Evers, The Clarion-Ledger noted. During recent years, states have been reopening cases in order to bring closure to events that caused deep bitterness between racial groups in the mid-20th century.

“It’s never to late to say you’re sorry. It’s never too late to try to make amends for the past, and I think this was a significant step,” Land told Baptist Press. “These are steps that show that indeed there has been revolutionary change in our nation and revolutionary change in the South, and I applaud the authorities who brought this man to trial, and I applaud the jurors who did justice.”

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