IT'S A FORM of poetic justice that Edgar Ray Killen was convicted of manslaughter on the 41st anniversary of the deaths of three civil rights workers in Neshoba County, Miss. That it took the state four decades to seek justice of any kind against Mr. Killen or any of the other alleged Ku Klux Klansmen long known or thought to have been responsible for the killings shows the depth of the racial chasm in Mississippi. But the fact that, however belatedly, the state brought charges and a jury of nine whites and three blacks has found the 80-year-old ailing former preacher culpable in the murders also points to progress made in bridging the divide and the need to continue the process of reconciliation and healing - not only in Mississippi, but across the nation.
Among a string of horrific murders that marked - and marred - the civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s, the deaths of three young men who tried to educate and enfranchise blacks in Mississippi during the "freedom summer" of 1964 were especially memorable. One of the workers, James Chaney, was black and from Meridian, Miss. The two others, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, both white, had come from New York. The three had investigated a firebombed church in Philadelphia, Miss., been arrested for speeding by a county sheriff and held long enough for a Klan posse to be assembled, waiting to ambush and murder them after they were released.
Though Mr. Killen was allegedly absent at the time of the murders, he was considered responsible for organizing the posse and arranging for a bulldozer to bury the bodies - which were not found for more than a month. In 1967, Mr. Killen escaped conviction on federal charges of conspiracy to violate civil rights because of a lone holdout on a deadlocked jury, but seven out of a total of 18 suspects in the case were convicted in federal court. After 40 years, Mr. Killen is the first to be tried - and now convicted - on state charges in the case. He could be sentenced to a maximum of 60 years tomorrow.
Relatives of the slain men were properly subdued in their reactions to the verdict, making it clear that they did not seek vengeance, but racial, social and economic justice - still works in progress in Mississippi. But for a state and a nation struggling to move forward, the judgment in Mississippi is an important step toward exorcising past ghosts.