Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood says he and the FBI have closed their investigation into the Ku Klux Klan’s 1964 killings of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.
Edgar Ray Killen — the Klansman who orchestrated one of the nation’s most notorious mass killings, the slayings of three civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964 — has died.
In 2005, a jury convicted Killen on three counts of manslaughter in the June 21, 1964, deaths of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner and sentenced him to 60 years in prison.
Goodman’s brother, David, said Friday that he had been informed by Mississippi corrections officials that Killen had died at 9 p.m. Thursday.
“Any time a person passes, their family grieves,” he said. “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.”
Chaney, 21, was a Mississippi native who became involved in the civil rights movement. Schwerner, 24, was from New York City and had come with his wife, Rita, to join the movement in Mississippi.
Goodman, 20, was a Queens College student who became involved in Freedom Summer.
On June 21, 1964, the three young men went to investigate the burning of the Mount. Zion Methodist Church, where Chaney and Schwerner had previously spoken. The Ku Klux Klan had burned down the church.
Neshoba County Deputy Cecil Price jailed the trio and released them at about 10:30 p.m. — into the hands of waiting Klansmen, who shot them to death and buried their bodies in an earthen dam.
Forty-four days later, FBI agents found the bodies.
“The 15 men who murdered Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney weren’t indicted, much less tried,” David Goodman said. “It’s an American tragedy that law enforcement, the FBI and others knew the names of those who were involved in the killings, but none were ever tried for murder. The only person tried was Edgar Ray Killen, who wasn’t even there.”
The killings were depicted in “Mississippi Burning,” a fictional 1988 film based on the real-life FBI investigation into the case.
Killen, who died less than a week from his 93rd birthday, worked much of his life cutting trees and on Sundays preached in so many rural Baptist churches that he became known as “Preacher” Killen.” He was the last living Klansman in a Mississippi prison for a civil rights cold case.
Thomas Blanton, who turns 80 this year, remains at the St. Clair Correctional Facility in Alabama. He was convicted for his role in the Ku Klux Klan’s 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church that killed four girls.
In 1967 in Mississippi, a federal jury convicted Price, Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers, Alton Wayne Roberts, Horace Doyle Barnette, Jimmy Arledge, Billy Wayne Posey and Jimmie Snowden of conspiracy..
The rest of the 18 who went on trial on those charges went free, including Killen.
That federal jury deadlocked 11-1 in favor of his guilt, with one juror telling the rest that she could “never convict a preacher.”
In 1999, Mississippi authorities reopened the case after the Clarion Ledger reported the contents of a secret interview Bowers had given in which he said he was “quite delighted to be convicted and have the main instigator walk out of the courtroom a free man.”
Killen bragged to the Clarion Ledger that he wouldn’t be prosecuted, claimed Goodman and Schwerner were “communists” and said he wanted to shake hands with the assassin of Martin Luther King Jr.
In 2004, a group of citizens known as the Philadelphia Coalition pushed for prosecution.
A year later, a Neshoba County grand jury indicted Killen for murder in the slayings of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner.
District Attorney Mark Duncan, Attorney General Jim Hood, Special Assistant Attorney General Lee Martin and others prosecuted the case.
In a compromise verdict, the jury voted unanimously to convict Killen on three counts of manslaughter on June 21, 2005 — the anniversary of the killings.
In 2014, each of the families of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner received the President Medal of Freedom.
Schwerner’s widow, Rita Bender, said, “It is tragic for the country that in all these years Preacher Killen could not bring himself to acknowledge his orchestration of these senseless murders. Perhaps even more troubling is that the racism which fueled the violence of many murders all those years ago presently remains a part of our nation’s discourse, and is encouraged at the highest levels of government.”
Chaney’s daughter, Angela Lewis, said she is praying for the Killen family and that she knows of the pain of death because of what she experienced with her mother.
“I pray to God that Edgar Ray repented and that he had peace with God,” she said. “My ultimate desire is when I get to heaven and meet my dad for the first time, I pray that my dad and I could embrace Edgar Ray.”
In the years after his conviction, Killen remained defiant in interviews with The Guardian, the Associated Press and the Greenwood Commonwealth, insisting he would be exonerated and freed from prison.
David Goodman said that “the history of this country has a shadow over it because this case and many others like it have never been resolved to bring justice to these families and especially black citizens who were murdered and killed because of white supremacy and racism. That’s what Edgar Ray Killen’s life was about in an important way, and we’re still dealing today with white nationalism.”