On Monday, June 13th, 2005, I made the hour and a half drive from my home in Madison to Philadelphia, MS for the first day of jury selection in the murder case against Edgar Ray Killen.
In many ways it was a drive back in time for me because I lived in Mississippi in 1964 when Killen is accused of having played a role in the murder of three civil rights workers. The case attracted national attention durring a summer known for racial unrest, and later the tragic details of the case became known to this generation when it became the basis for the movie, "Mississippi Burning."
Although I grew up near Syracuse, NY, I spent three years in Mississippi (from 1961 to 1964) at the peak of the tension that accompanied what has become known as the Civil Rights era. It was a time when blacks and sympathetic whites risked everything by supporting voting rights for black people.
It is difficult for young people today to appreciate that just four decades ago, Southern blacks were routinely and universally denied the right to vote, to attend integrated schools, to live wherever they wished, and to have equal employment opportunities.
As important, there were numerous customs designed to segregate the races in virtually every social setting. Blacks and whites could not share public toilets, drinking fountains, waiting rooms or public accomodations. Blacks were expected to call every white person by an honorific, so that even white children were addressed by aged blacks as "Mister," or "Miss." In return, every black was addressed by their first name, or if their name was not known, they would be called "boy," or "girl."
It was against this background of centuries of slavery and social oppression that visionaries like Martin Luther King, Jr., began to dream of an America in which all would be treated equally. This hardly seems a revolutionary idea today but those of us who lived through this era can attest to the anger and emotion King's dream evoked. Nowhere was the resistance to change greater than in Mississippi.
I will leave it to the many reporters and pundits now present in Philadelphia to provide the details of the trial. The "perp" walk and other now commonplace parts of contemporary trial coverage, will no doubt be readily available. I felt, though, that there may be a few who would appreciate the view of someone with a somewhat unique perspective on this case.
In many ways, the Killen case, devoid as it is of sex, drugs, money, fame, or even a damsel in distress, is an unlikely focus of attention in today's culture. But, it is as though we in Mississippi, and in the nation, have an obligation to right an ancient wrong. It is as unpleasant as it is necessary. So, as the process unfolds, I will try to post periodic notes.
The Philadelphia area is the ancestral home of Native-Americans of the Choctaw tribe. They have made and re-invested millions of dollars in the huge Golden Moon casino which is located just a few miles west of town. Busloads of tourists arrive daily from all over the Southeast to try their luck.
Although the Choctaws are a relatively small tribe, they count among their descendants three of the most famous people in America: O.J. Simpson, James Meredith, and Oprah Winfrey, all of whom have roots in the tiny Buffalo community in nearby Attala County. Ironically, the world thinks of them as African-Americans, but Mr. Meredith has told me of his own large Choctaw heritage, and he has written about the Choctaw background of Mr. Simpson's parents and Ms. Winfrey's ancestors. I have explored this topic at CHOCTAW GENEALOGY
These photos were taken near the modern Golden Moon caasino. Mrs. Hope, the palm reader, advertises her services for $10. Many people in this area live in manufactured homes like Mrs. Hope's, shown above.
These photos show two aspects of every high profile court case in contemporary society: satellite uplink trucks and weapon searches. Reporters from Court TV, ABC, and several local TV stations were present.
Large numbers of police, fire, and other emergency vehicles were conspicuous, but, as it turned out, unnecessary. A couple of KKK representatives made a cameo appearance but were mostly ignored.
While Philadelphia is small enough that most everyone has some association with the case or knows someone who does, the community did not seem bothered by the throngs of reporters who have taken up residence in the streets near the county courthouse. An indication of the connectedness seen in most small towns is the fact that both parents of Circuit Judge Marcus Gordon who is presiding in this case, were buried at services led by the defendant, Edgar Killen, a lay minister.
As the photos above show, the homes in Philadelphia range from old and fashionable to just old. In much of this state, manufactured homes are more common than in the north. It would be a mistake, though, to think that shanties and trailers are home to most Mississippians. For example, in the city where I live, the average price of a new home is about $400,000, and, perhaps, 10% of the residents are African-Americans.
Another stereotype that has been too long in dying is the idea that racial rancor is common here. In fact, I have seen much more genuine positive interaction among blacks and whites here than I ever observed in the north. People of all races greet both friends and strangers as they walk down
the sidewalk. In rural areas, it is yet common for people to wave at anyone driving down the road.
Of course, race relations here--and in most places--could be better. But, to those of us who have a perspective reaching back to the sad days of the civil rights era, some of the changes have been little less than amazing.
NOTES ADDED ON JUNE 20, 2005
NOTES ADDED JUNE 21, 2005
The swiftness of today's verdict, coming as it did so soon after the jury appeared deadlocked, surprised most observers. But after only a few hours of deliberation the jury found Edgar Ray Killen guilty of three counts of manslaughter. Ironically, it was 41 years ago today that Killen's gang of night-riders murdered James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman.
Judge Gordon will pronounce sentence on Thursday, and whatever term is imposed is likely to be a life sentence as Killen is 80 years old and in poor health.
In press meetings after the verdict was rendered, Rita Schwerner Bender, the widow of Killen's victim, Michael "Mickey" Schwerner, applauded the jury and the prosecutors, but expressed the view that the case only attracted national attention in 1964 because two of the victims were white.
She, also, said that she wished that the defendant had been found guilty of murder.
Ben Chaney, the brother of another victim, James Chaney, said he was disappointed by the small turnout of local African-Americans. He, also, lamented the fact that there were still no black-owned businesses on the downtown court house square. He called attention to the fact that the present governor, Haley Barbour, regularly wears a lapel button with a replica of the state flag which contains Confederate emblems.
As I didn't hear all of the evidence presented, I can hardly render an opinion about the merit of the case brought by the state. I am confident, though, that this jury, like most others, treated this case with the care it deserved. If it did, then there is every reason to believe that justice will be served at Thursday's sentencing.
Although, it has rapidly faded from public awareness, another central Mississippi murder trial was once as prominent as the Killen trial, attracting reporters from throughout the nation. In 1950, Leon Turner, from nearby Attala County, was convicted of murdering three black children and sentenced to a life term at the notorious Parchman penitentiary. It was the first time in the state's history that a white man had been convicted of killing a black person.
It is likely that Turner would not have been convicted of this crime except that at the time of the murders he was an escapee from the local jail at Kosciusko. He attempted to kill the children's father but the man lived long enough to bear witness against Turner. Two other white men, brothers Malcolm and Wendol Whitt, who escaped with Turner and were present at the murders, were also re-captured. They were deemed less culpable and received 15 year sentences.
The interested reader will find photos and other information about this case by clicking here.
NOTES ADDED JUNE 22, 2005
In an Internet posting yesterday, someone commented on the fact that the state of Mississippi must now expend state resources for the care and maintenance of an aged prisoner. Well, I have good news for anyone worried about the state of Mississippi wasting money on inmates at Parchman. I have visited there many times and I can assure you that no one, inmate or keeper, is treated lavishly
In rare instances a state inmate is sent to a facility that provides some medical care during the period of incarceration. In most cases, though, after a brief period of assessment, the prisoner will wind up at Parchman.
The first year or two that a prisoner like Killen is there will be spent in solitary confinement. Some visits are permitted but they occur through thick glass windows via intercom. Prisoners go nowhere without being chained hand and foot.
If he should survive that period--unlikely, as he is 80 and in poor health--he will be placed in the dorms with the general population. A typical room was built for 40 men but now contains 120 or more prisoners. They are all locked up together at night in an open room. No member of the staff is there to supervise what occurs and, predictably, the usual rules of the jungle obtain. Inmates can have TV sets but there is only one station that can sometimes be picked up with old fashioned rabbit ear aerials. There is no air conditioning and summertime temperatures in the Mississippi delta often reach 100 degrees.
I am as offended by crime and criminals as anyone, but, the conditions at Parchman are a disgrace to this state and ought not to be countenanced. The federal government seems intent on regulating everything from womb to tomb, except prisons. How is it that they can tell a state how it must build
its highways so as to not inconvenience jackrabbits, yet not demand that the state treat its citizens humanely? But, of course, prisoners are not a very photogenic or sympathetic group, and have a very small constituency in places of power.
When I was in graduate school, I worked part-time for several years as a teacher at a penitentiary in upstate NY. I would get locked up in the general population for three or four hours each night while helping those who wanted to prepare for their GED exam. The inmates had individual cells, decent meals, and the opportunity to reform and educate themselves. It was still jail, and I was thankful that I got to go home every night, but the difference between doing time there or doing time at Parchman is the difference between day and night.