Edgar Ray Killen, Convicted in ’64 Killings of Rights Workers, Dies at 92

Share on Facebook
Tweet on Twitter

Mr. Killen was a founding member of the Klan in the Philadelphia area and its chief recruiter, according to the F.B.I. He had been among 18 men tried in 1967 on federal charges of conspiring to violate the civil rights of Mr. Chaney, Mr. Goodman and Mr. Schwerner.


Mr. Killen in 1964.

Associated Press

They were shot to death on the night of June 21, 1964. After an extensive search led by the F.B.I., their bodies were found on a farm nearby six weeks later, buried nearby under an earthen dam.

The federal charges against Mr. Killen, a sawmill operator and part-time preacher at small churches near his lifelong home in Union, Miss., were dismissed after a lone member of the all-white jury at the 1967 trial, in Meridian, held out for acquittal. She said she did not believe a man of God could have participated in such a crime.

Afterward, Mr. Killen, known to friends as Preacher Killen, continued to live with his wife, Betty Jo, at their modest ranch home near his 20-acre farm and sawmill. He resumed his preaching and displayed a tablet with the Ten Commandments on his lawn.

But in 1975 he was charged with making a telephone call threatening to kill a private investigator who had been hired by a man to follow the man’s wife. The man believed she was having an affair with Mr. Killen.

Mr. Killen was sentenced to five months in prison in the case, which was prosecuted by Marcus D. Gordon, the Neshoba County district attorney at the time and later the judge who presided over the murder trial.

Mr. Killen was indicted by a Neshoba County grand jury on murder charges in January 2005. Two months later, free on bail, he broke both his legs when a tree at his farm fell on him. He sat in a wheelchair during his state trial in Philadelphia while recovering from his injuries, a gaunt figure sometimes breathing through tubes attached to an oxygen tank.

The murder prosecution, brought by the Mississippi state attorney general, Jim Hood, and the county district attorney, Mark Duncan, was based largely on the transcripts of testimony at the federal trial.

Mr. Killen was said to have recruited the mob that killed the civil rights workers, although he was not at the scene of their murders, having gone to a funeral home to attend two wakes. In testimony, fellow Klansman said he had gone to the funeral home to create an alibi for his whereabouts when the murders occurred.


A “missing” poster for Andrew Goodman, James Earl Chaney and Michael Henry Schwerner. In 2005, Mr. Killen was sentenced to 60 years in prison for their deaths.

In bringing a manslaughter verdict in 2005, the jury — made up of nine whites and three blacks — concluded that there was not enough evidence to prove Mr. Killen had known that the three civil rights workers would be killed when he sent Klansmen to abduct them.

Mr. Killen did not testify at the trial, but he had long professed his innocence. While ardently defending segregation, he had denied being a member of the Klan, although one of his defense lawyers said he was.

‘We Got a Little Justice’

Mr. Schwerner’s widow, Rita Bender, was dismayed that the jury did not convict Mr. Killen of murder. But after hearing Judge Gordon sentence him to three consecutive maximum terms of 20 years on the manslaughter convictions, she remarked, “I think we got a little justice this morning.”

The judge was a neighbor of Mr. Killen’s and had presided over the funerals of Mr. Killen’s parents. Some of the judge’s friends later criticized him for not imposing concurrent sentences on Mr. Killen, who was 80 at the time.

“Each life has value,” Judge Gordon said before imposing the sentence. “Law does not recognize the distinction of age.”

In 2014, in a posthumous ceremony, President Barack Obama presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, to the three murdered civil rights workers. Handing the decorations to members of their families, he said that the young men had “refused to sit on the sidelines” at a time of racial injustice and that “their brutal murder by a gang of Ku Klux Klan members shook the conscience of our nation.”

The murder plot unfolded on the afternoon of June 21, 1964, when the Neshoba County deputy sheriff, Cecil Price (who died in 2001), pulled the three men’s station wagon over and arrested them. Mr. Schwerner, the driver, was charged with speeding, and Mr. Goodman and Mr. Chaney were held for investigation concerning the burning of a black church in the area that was to have been used as a center for recruiting civil rights workers.

The three men had gone to the church to investigate the fire, which had, in fact, been set by Klansmen.


The bodies of the three civil rights workers were found buried in an earthen dam near Philadelphia, Miss., in 1964.

F.B.I., via Associated Press

According to testimony, Sheriff Price had notified Mr. Killen that he was holding the three men, allowing time for him to gather fellow Klansmen to trap them.

The Klansmen waited in two cars near the police station, and when the three men were released that night, they chased after them, together with Sheriff Price in his cruiser. When they caught up with the station wagon on a small road, the men were pulled from it and shot to death.

Among the 19 federal defendants were Sheriff Price and Sam Bowers, the Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, which the federal authorities regarded as the Klan’s most violent group.

Mr. Bowers was said to have specifically marked Mr. Schwerner for death because of his extensive civil rights activities in the Philadelphia area. Mr. Schwerner was described by the Justice Department in its 2016 summary of the events as “particularly reviled by the Klan.”

Mr. Chaney had also been involved in civil rights work in the area, but Mr. Goodman was there for the first time.

Seven of the defendants were convicted at trial; another confessed, pleaded guilty and did not stand trial but testified against the others. None served more than six years in prison. Eight defendants were acquitted. Mr. Killen was among three whose cases ended with hung juries.

The prosecutors in Mr. Killen’s state murder trial sought to bring charges against all eight surviving defendants from the federal trial, but the grand jury indicted only Mr. Killen.

The historian David Oshinsky, writing in The New York Times in 1998, told of an interview that Mr. Killen had given him in which he said of the victims: “Those boys were Communists who went to a Communist training school. I’m sorry they got themselves killed. But I can’t show remorse for something I didn’t do.”


Mr. Killen with the Neshoba County deputy sheriff Cecil Price in October 1967 in Meridian, Miss., where they awaited verdicts in the murders. According to testimony, Sheriff Price had notified Mr. Killen that he was holding the three men, allowing time for Mr. Killen to gather fellow Klansmen to trap them.

Jack Thornell/Associated Press

Jerry Mitchell, a reporter for The Clarion-Ledger of Jackson, Miss., who investigated many of the South’s racial crimes, quoted Mr. Killen as telling him in 1999 that sometime after he had been questioned by the F.B.I. in the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, he asked if the bureau knew who had committed the murder because, he said, “Man, I just want to shake his hand.”

He Said He Was Innocent

By Mr. Mitchell’s account, when he asked Mr. Killen what should happen to the killers of the three civil rights workers, Mr. Killen replied, “I’m not going to say that they were wrong.”

When he went on trial for murder in 2005, Mr. Killen, interviewed for the documentary “Neshoba: The Price of Freedom” (2010), said he was being made a “sacrificial lamb.”

“I’m probably the only sawmiller in the South who never whipped one of his black hands,” he said, while denouncing “mingling” of the races.

Edgar Ray Killen was born on Jan. 17, 1925, the oldest of eight children in a family that had long worked as loggers, millers and farmers in the Union, Miss., area, not far from where the three civil rights workers would be killed.

Patsy Sims, who was researching a book on the Klan when she interviewed Mr. Killen in 1976, wrote in the Southern literary magazine Oxford American in 2014 that he told her that he had graduated from high school, studied agriculture at a junior college, bought a sawmill at age 19 and had been preaching since his early 20s, mostly at a Baptist church.

In her notes following the interview, she described him as “a slight man who looked almost comical in his cowboy hat and baggy suit,” lending the appearance of “someone who had just stepped off a Greyhound bus.”

Mr. Killen and wife, Betty Jo — it was reportedly the second marriage for both — had no children together. Information on Mr. Killen’s survivors was not available.


Mr. Killen during a court hearing in Philadelphia, Miss., in September 2009.

Kyle Carter/Reuters

James Earl Chaney’s mother, Fannie Lee Chaney, of Willingboro, N.J., and Andrew Goodman’s mother, Carolyn Goodman, a clinical psychologist in Manhattan who became a prominent civil rights activist after her son’s death, testified briefly at Mr. Killen’s state trial, as did the widow of Mr. Schwerner, who had worked with him in the Mississippi voter drive.

Mrs. Chaney and Mrs. Goodman both died in 2007. Ben Chaney, a younger brother of James Earl Chaney, was among the mourners at Mrs. Goodman’s funeral, and he pondered the decades of anguish for both women.

“They carried a hell of a burden for a long time,” he said. “A hell of a burden — knowing that your sons were murdered and the murderers were out on the streets going free.”

In June 2016, Mr. Hood, the Mississippi attorney general, announced an end to the active federal and state investigations into the killings of the civil rights workers, saying it was unlikely that there would be any more convictions. Mr. Gordon, the judge in the murder trial, had died a month earlier.

In its report on the case, presented to Mr. Hood that June, the Justice Department said that in the course of its continuing investigation it sought to interview Mr. Killen in 2012, but that through his lawyer he had refused to speak to federal investigators and continued to maintain that he knew nothing about the murders.

“Any time a person passes, their family grieves,” Andrew Goodman’s brother, David, told The Clarion-Ledger. “However, in the case of Edgar Ray Killen, he belongs to a bigger part of American history, where white supremacists took black lives with impunity.”

When Mr. Killen was convicted of manslaughter, Jim Prince, the editor of the weekly newspaper The Neshoba Democrat, said that a collective burden had been lifted on a once-infamous corner of Mississippi.

“Finally, finally, finally,” Mr. Prince said. “This certainly sends a message, I think, to the criminals and to the thugs that justice reigns in Neshoba County, unlike 41 years ago.”

Correction: January 12, 2018

An earlier version of this obituary misstated the location of the prison in Mississippi where Mr. Killen died. It is in Parchman, not Jackson.

Continue reading the main story

Source link