Arrest brings Miss. town face to face with its ugly past

THE BALTIMORE SUN

PHILADELPHIA, Miss. - On the one hand, there's the hope of justice long-delayed. And on the other, there's a nagging knot of fear. Vickie Kilpatrick, like many others here, twisted and wrung both of those hands last week.

Philadelphia has never lived down the infamy of being the town where three young civil rights activists were hunted down and killed - allegedly by Ku Klux Klan members - in 1964, and where state murder charges were so long coming. After the man long rumored to be the instigator was arrested last week, 40 years after the crime, raw emotions surfaced anew.

"Yes he deserves to be punished," said Kilpatrick, a decorator, who is white and was a baby at the time of the killings. "But for me, living here now, I wished they left it alone. I'm just scared it will cause a lot of civil unrest."

As national news media flooded Philadelphia last week and trained their cameras on the town's historic downtown courthouse, the city of 7,300, about two hours northeast of Jackson, found itself once again face to face with its ugly past.

Some in town hope the arrest will salve Philadelphia's wounded reputation and help heal its spirit.

Others say it's only causing more pain. Progress and redemption will come at a price. And the original scar, and perhaps new ones, may never fully disappear.

"Mixed emotions" is how more than a few people put it. The town doesn't know quite what to feel.

Killen, a sawmill owner and ordained Baptist minister known as "preacher," was arrested Thursday and charged with the murders of Michael Schwerner, 24, James Chaney, 21 and Andrew Goodman, 20.

The three idealistic activists, like thousands of other northern kids that "Freedom Summer," headed south to register black voters. They were also in town to investigate the burning of the Mount Zion Baptist Church.

A sheriff's deputy arrested and jailed the three after they visited the church, charging them with speeding. When the three were released, a gang of men pulled them over, dragged them from their Ford station wagon, drove them to a secluded country road and killed them.

Though National Guardsmen and search parties combed Neshoba County, it took 44 days before the bodies were found in a fresh earthen dam on a private farm, seven miles outside town.

Long-considered the ring-leader of the plan, Killen was in his late 30s at the time of the murders. In 1967, Killen and 18 other men were tried on federal civil right violations. Seven of the men were convicted, but the all-white jury deadlocked in Killen's case, and he went free. Years later, new information and public pressure prompted prosecutors to reopen the case. And Thursday, Killen was arrested again, days shy of his 80th birthday, white-haired and frail.

In Philadelphia, some say that's justice served and provides sorely needed closure. Others say the arrest is a political sham, a pity.

If he did it, these people figure, he should pay. If he did it. If.

But mainly, people don't much want to talk at all about what's become known as the Mississippi Burning murders, after the Gene Hackman movie about the case that came out in 1988. Or, they'd like to, but can't.

In the clothing stores, pharmacies and beauty parlors that ring Philadelphia's town square, when the topic comes up, apologetic head-shaking and a slow backing away ensues almost immediately.

One shop worker is afraid that if people knew he talked about it, his daughter would face trouble at school.

Many fear they would lose business. A clerk at a women's dress shop told a visitor inquiring about the case, "We can't comment. The manager said. They don't want a boycott on the store or nothin' like that."

Roxie Boyd, a 51-year-old Head Start teacher, didn't mind saying Killen's arrest was "a long time coming."

A child at the time of the murders, Boyd, who is black, heard the stories from her parents and witnessed her town's brutal capabilities firsthand when she saw a man beaten after he was arrested.

"We've had a really bad stink on this town because of this," she said.

Many in Philadelphia have long felt the shame the murders have brought. Jerry Donald, a floor installer who works with Kilpatrick, is angry that he is often held accountable for another generation's crimes.

"You can drive all the way to New York City, and people have heard of Philadelphia, Mississippi," he says bitterly. "We had nothing to do with that. We had no clue. But we gotta live with that 'Oh, you're from Philadelphia.'"

Philadelphia these days is predominantly white. Blacks make up nearly 40 percent of the population while American Indians, entrenched on the Choctaw reservation at the edge of town, account for about 13 percent of the residents.

The Indians run the town's biggest moneymaker with their two booming casinos.

People in town used to make livings at Philadelphia factories, making gloves, jeans and parts for American cars.

Now paychecks come from the casinos, or from one of the area's preponderance of fast-food outlets and retail establishments.

Eddie Gibson, chairman of the Choctaw Gaming Commission, hopes Killen's arrest lets the world know that Philadelphia, and Mississippi, are "not in a rut, not dealing with things and just sitting on them. If we sit on it, it makes people think what they thought all these years, that Mississippi is backwoods. It can be more than that. And it is more than that."

Early yesterday at Doug's - a small cafe that's tucked inside of a Shell station - gray-haired retirees chain-smoked and repeatedly filled Styrofoam cups with coffee.

The morning paper was spread out before them. Killen in handcuffs and an orange jumpsuit took up most of the front page.

"I think it's a bunch of bull, bringing this up after 40 years," said Curtis McDonald, 79. "I believe the guilty ought to pay," he added, as another man at the table interrupts, "But he's not guilty."

John Moore, 75, a former carpenter, said from the next table, "We can't change history. What he did, I wouldn't think we could do now. I wouldn't have done it. If I lived in a time when people had slaves, my slaves wouldn't have been slaves. They would have been treated like people."

The men agreed that Killen's arrest is a political sham, done for "publicity." Why? They don't know.

"What was done was wrong. What's being done now is wrong," said Edward Richardson, 63, a former dental technician who used to help Killen haul logs and who considers him a friend. "There ain't no law in this."

LaShon Horne, who arrived back in Philadelphia after a tour of duty with the Army in Iraq the same day Killen was jailed, called the arrest "justice."

Horne, who is black, said he doesn't suffer because of his race. But it's hard to forget the past at times, such as during the Klan's annual parade, when hooded men march through downtown Philadelphia.

"You know they're still here," he said. "You don't know who they are. It could be some of the people you work with every day."

Watching his 2-year-old nephew play yesterday in the city's tidy new library, Michael Moore, a 42-year-old construction worker on disability, praised Philadelphia's "quiet" and the closure he thinks that the arrest of Killen will bring to town.

Yet, he added, "They're still that way here.

"You can see the bigotry in some of these people. They still want to call you a 'boy'. Some of them use the 'n' word and say coon once in a while."

But Philadelphia is his town. Moore is content.

"If you talked to people in town about what Killen and the others did," he said, "they wouldn't think they were wrong. ... It's Mississippi time. It's like that. It's always gonna be like that."

Case timeline

In 1964, three civil rights workers were killed in Mississippi by a group of Klansmen. Authorities say reputed Klan member Edgar Ray Killen organized the killings.

DETAILS OF THE CASE:

June 21, 1964: Civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney are arrested and jailed, then released. Returning home, they are shot and beaten to death by more than 20 Klansmen, investigators say.

Aug. 4, 1964: Their bodies are discovered beneath an earthen dam.

Feb. 28, 1967: A federal grand jury returns indictments for Killen and 18 other Klansmen.

Oct. 20, 1967: An all-white jury convicts seven of conspiracy, acquits eight and deadlocks on three defendants, including Killen.

Dec. 27, 1998: A local newspaper, The Clarion-Ledger, reports one-time Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers admitted he thwarted justice by allowing a fellow Klansman to get away with murder in the case. As a result, the case is reopened.

Jan. 6, 2005: A grand jury in Neshoba County indicts Killen in first-ever murder charge in the case.

Jan. 7, 2005: Killen pleads not guilty and is ordered held without bond.

Sources: AP, The Clarion-Ledger

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