The bodies of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner, unearthed in 1964. Thousands of Black people were killed by the Klan and police in the South.

Photo: Reuters Photo Archive

On June 21, a Mississippi jury convicted former preacher and KKK member Edgar Ray Killen of manslaughter in the 1964 murders of civil rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. Chaney was a Black man from Mississippi and Goodman and Schwerner were white New Yorkers. The verdict came 41 years to the day after the three civil rights workers were brutally beaten and shot to death by the KKK. The judge sentenced the 80-year-old Killen to the maximum 60 years in prison for the crimes.

Although Killen ordered the murders, the jury refused to convict on the greater charge of first-degree murder. The state is largely to blame for this outrage. Mississippi dragged its feet for more than 40 years until finally prosecuting Killen for murder. Evidence was lost and key witnesses died in the meantime.

This incredible delay allowed those guilty of murdering Chaney, Goodman, Schwerner and many other innocent people to go unpunished. It gave the KKK the freedom to continue its reign of terror against Black people. “A vigilante group may have fired the weapon, but the state of Mississippi loaded and aimed the weapon,” said Leroy Clemons, president of the local NAACP chapter.

The civil rights activists were in Neshoba County, Mississippi to investigate the torching of a Black church and help register Black voters. In a murderous plan orchestrated by the local police and the KKK, a policeman (and KKK member) stopped the three for speeding, jailed them briefly, and then released them. They were then followed out of town by a gang of Klansmen and killed. Killen was the primary organizer of the racist Klansmen who hunted down and murdered the three men.

He is the only person ever to be charged by the state of Mississippi with murder in this case, even though the identities of the other killers are known.

During the search for Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner in 1964, the bodies of dozens of other Black people who had been murdered by the KKK were uncovered. None of these other heinous crimes has been investigated.

The trial and conviction of arch-racist Killen focused the country’s attention on the horrific violence committed against Black people in the South. But the big-business media coverage ignored much of the region’s violent, racist history. Thousands of young Black men and women like James Chaney were beaten, raped, tortured, lynched and murdered in Mississippi and other southern states in the 1960s and over the past 100 years. Such violence was a day-to-day reality in the lives of Black people in the South.

Killen’s conviction can’t begin to make up for these atrocities.

After the verdict, Ron Scott, co-founder of the Black Panther Party in Detroit, wrote of the need to expose every hate crime committed against Black people in the United States: “We need to aggressively prosecute all unresolved racist murders during the last 100 years that went unheeded by the government, and provide reparations to the victims of these murders.” (Chicago Defender, July 4)