Accessibility links

Breaking News

Civil Rights Activists Commend Mississippi Verdicts

Edgar Ray Killen
U.S. civil rights leaders are hailing Tuesday's guilty verdicts in the case of three civil rights workers killed in the southern state of Mississippi back in 1964.

The verdict in the trial of 80-year-old preacher Edgar Ray Killen came exactly 41 years to the day that the three civil rights workers disappeared near Philadelphia, Mississippi.

"We the jury find the defendant, Edgar Ray Killen, as to count one, guilty of manslaughter," announced a juror.

The jury found Killen guilty of three counts of manslaughter. Prosecutor Mark Duncan had hoped for murder convictions, but said the jury's decision was still significant for the state of Mississippi.

"That it was sanctioned by evil men and that one of them is going to have to pay for that crime now," he said. "Late, but it is done."

Prosecutors said Killen was a local member of the racist Ku Klux Klan who organized the seizure and execution-style deaths of civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney. Their bodies were found buried in an earthen dam 44 days later.

The three civil rights workers had been registering black voters around the time of their deaths and their murders helped to galvanize national interest in the civil rights movement in the mid-1960s.

James Chaney's brother Ben had hoped for a murder conviction, but welcomed the outcome of the trial nonetheless.

"We probably could have gotten more had all the information been available to be used," he said. "But we will take what we got."

But Michael Schwerner's widow, Rita Bender, was disappointed with the jury's decision to find Edgar Killen guilty of manslaughter instead of murder.

"There are still people, unfortunately, among you who choose to look aside, who choose to not see the truth," she said. "And that means there is a lot more yet to be done."

Civil rights activists say the Mississippi case and other recent murder trials in the South stemming from the 1960s are an important part of the United States coming to grips with its racial past.

Hilary Shelton is with the Washington office of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), one of the country's leading civil rights groups.

"We have such a troubling history in our country of racial discrimination that also includes violence, maiming and murder," she said. "So it is important that we continue to remember that murder has no statute of limitations [no limit on prosecution]."

Former U.N. Ambassador and Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young told NBC television that the Mississippi case involving the three civil rights workers is a reminder of the sacrifices made by both blacks and whites during the struggle for civil rights in the 1960s.

"It was important for Mississippi to do this on their own because it says how far Mississippi has come [since 1964]," said Andrew Young. "We had the brightest and best of the youth of America come down and risk their lives and I think they gave their lives to redeem the soul of America."

Edgar Ray Killen was one of 18 men who faced federal civil rights charges in connection with the murders in 1967. Seven men were convicted, but Killen was freed after the jury in his case deadlocked.