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The search for closure in a Mississippi town

With Edgar Ray Killen back on trial after four decades, a state struggles - again - with vestiges of its segregationist past.

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Surrounded by tabby cats, under a canopy of oaks on his porch overlooking muddy cow country, Edgar Ray Killen grew old. His contemporaries remember gangs with sling blades and men in pointy white hats with holes for eyes. But most people in this town of 8,000 had forgotten the ordained Baptist minister who eked out a living on his backyard sawmill.

Forty-one years ago, state prosecutors say, Mr. Killen helped kidnap and kill three civil rights workers. Last week, a stooped Killen returned to court and barked a hoarse "not guilty" at the judge. So began the latest, and perhaps the biggest, in a series of recent reckonings of civil rights era crimes - a turn of events that some see as a hopeful sign of righting old wrongs, some decry as a pointless dredging of the past, and some liken to the hunt for Nazi war criminals.

The case may be another sign of transition in a town - and a state - that has struggled for years to leave behind its segregationist past.

"I'm sure there are people in Philadelphia who wish it would all just go away, but there are some people, at least, who think it's long overdue, and that the town can't begin to heal itself without exposure of what happened, who did it, and finally see justice," says Harry Watson, the director of the Center for the Study of the American South in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Trials revisiting, and sometimes revising, Southern segregation have come in quick succession in the past decade, from the 1994 conviction of Byron de la Beckwith for the assassination of NAACP organizer Medgar Evers in Mississippi; to the 1998 conviction of former Klan wizard Sam Bowers in a 1966 firebombing, also in Mississippi; to the recent conviction of two men involved in the 1963 bombing that killed four black girls at Alabama's 16th Street Baptist Church.

On the streets of Philadelphia, Miss., the trial comes at a time when physical intimidation of blacks is largely gone. But longtime residents still remember the sheriff's 10 p.m. curfews in black neighborhoods when, if lights stayed on, whites might toss sticks of dynamite through living-room windows.


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