State Prosecutor Closes 'Mississippi Burning' Civil Rights Case

Jun 21, 2016
Originally published on June 21, 2016 6:50 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Officials in Mississippi are now closing the investigation into one of the most notorious murders of the civil rights era, the killing by the Ku Klux Klan of three young Freedom Summer activists. Here's Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood.

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JIM HOOD: This sort of closes a chapter on an era that we didn't want to have in public view. We were ashamed of that.

MARTIN: The decision comes 52 years after James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were killed in Neshoba County, Miss. NPR's Debbie Elliott has been following the case since it was reopened in the late 1990s. And she joins us now. Good morning, Debbie.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: Today is the anniversary of the '64 Neshoba County murders. And federal and state authorities now say they've concluded the investigation and are releasing the final FBI report. Why now?

ELLIOTT: Well, Attorney General Hood says more prosecutions are unlikely now.

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HOOD: It's just gotten to the point where it's 52 years later and we've done all we can do.

ELLIOTT: You know, the passage of time means that memories have faded. Both participants in this crime and many of the witnesses have since died. Evidence hasn't been preserved. Now, there are at least two known suspects who are still alive. But the state hasn't been able to build a strong enough case against them to prosecute.

The state has only convicted one man in the murders. That was Klan leader Edgar Ray Killen. He was known as Preacher Killen. He's 91 and remains jailed on manslaughter charges for orchestrating the killings.

MARTIN: Debbie, you covered the Killen trial back in 2005. Can you remind us about that crime and why it took so long to bring justice?

ELLIOTT: Well, in 1964, it was Freedom Summer. Young people from around the country had come to Mississippi to work with local civil rights activists to register voters and to set up schools for disenfranchised African-Americans. Chaney, Goodwin and Schwerner were working at this black church that was just outside of Philadelphia, Miss. It had been the target of Klan violence the week before.

They left the neighborhood of that church. They had a run in with local authorities. They were arrested. They were put in jail. And shortly after they were released, they went missing. And there was all this national attention at the time, the drama of the search, some say because two of the workers were white.

James Chaney was a black man from Meridian, Miss. At the time, Mississippi officials were calling it a hoax devised to garner sympathy for the civil rights movement.

MARTIN: So when did they figure out that it wasn't a hoax?

ELLIOTT: It was 44 days later. Their bodies were found buried in an earthen dam off a remote country road. They had been shot to death. Twenty-two Klansmen were implicated in the murder conspiracy, including the local sheriff and his deputy. Now, at the time, federal officials brought civil rights charges.

And eight people were convicted in 1967. But the state refused to bring murder charges. And it was four decades later that Edgar Ray Killen was tried and convicted. He is now serving a 60-year prison sentence.

MARTIN: So, Debbie, what's the reaction been like to the case being closed?

ELLIOTT: You know, I'm not sure anyone really expected more prosecutions, although there was always the hope that someone might have a deathbed confession and be willing to offer more details of what happened. I spoke yesterday with Rita Schwerner Bender. That's Mickey Schwerner's widow. She was working with him in Mississippi in 1964.

She says it's long since been too late to achieve justice here. And she still has very harsh words for the state of Mississippi, which she says was complicit in the racism and violence at the time and has failed to acknowledge that official role and make amends for it.

MARTIN: NPR's Debbie Elliott. Thanks so much, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.