Edgar Ray Killen called himself a Baptist minister, but he worshipped in the church of the Ku Klux Klan. So when Killen, a native of Philadelphia, Miss., became his local Klan's Kleagle (a top commander) in the 1960s, he finally felt ordained with genuine power--and he allegedly used it to recruit and organize more than a dozen Klansmen in the 1964 murder of three civil rights workers.
The deaths of James Chaney, 21, a black Mississippian, and two white New Yorkers, Michael Schwerner, 24, and Andrew Goodman, 20, came to symbolize white resistance to the "Freedom Summer" campaign to register black voters. The case shocked much of the country and later inspired the 1988 Gene Hackman film Mississippi Burning. Yet neither Killen, called the "Preacher" by locals, nor other Klansmen ever faced state murder charges. And most, including Killen, beat federal civil rights--violation charges in a 1967 trial in which one member of the all-white jury insisted she could never convict a man of God like the Preacher. One of the men who was convicted, Sam Bowers-- the Neshoba County Klan's Imperial Wizard--later said in a prison interview that he was "quite delighted to have the main instigator of the entire affair," meaning Killen, "walk out of the courtroom a free man."
So when Killen, now 79, shuffled back into a courtroom in Philadelphia last week, having finally been arrested for the murders, it was as if a cloud had lifted. Handcuffed and wearing an orange prison jump suit, he pleaded not guilty as his younger brother Jerry knocked down a television cameraman outside the courthouse.
Today, 40 years after the crime, Killen's sympathizers are a decided minority. A local television-news poll showed almost 70% support for his arrest, triggered by a series of articles in the Clarion-Ledger of Jackson, Miss., which in 1998 dug up Bowers' incriminating interview. It took the Mississippi attorney general's office six years to bring charges after reopening the case in 1999, in part because some of the evidence had to be rebuilt, but many feel it was just a matter of time. "There was simply too much pressure" to follow through and avoid the impression that Mississippi was backsliding, says a high-ranking state official. The arrest is part of a broader purge of the South's segregationist skeletons--including Mississippi's 1994 conviction of Byron de la Beckwith in the 1963 murder of black civil rights leader Medgar Evers and Alabama's 2002 conviction of Bobby Frank Cherry for the 1963 bombing of a black Birmingham church.
The 1964 slayings were especially sinister. On Sunday, June 21, Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney were headed to Meridian, Miss., in their station wagon. Outside Philadelphia, they were stopped by deputy sheriff Cecil Price, a Klansman, who put them in jail. According to testimony in the 1967 trial, Price plotted with Killen to release the three men that night, then have them tailed by Price, Killen and other Klansmen. The conspirators abducted the civil rights workers, whom Killen had allegedly ordered two Klansmen to shoot. The three bodies were buried on a nearby farm, where they were found a month and a half later by federal agents. The station wagon had been burned.