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Archive for Sunday, January 9, 2005

Town divided over dredging up past

Arrest in 1964 slayings brings mixed reactions in Mississippi

January 9, 2005

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— Wilford Barrett, whose barber shop sits across the street from the county courthouse, thinks the 41-year-old slaying of three civil rights workers should stay where it is: in the past.

"It's been so long ago," he said. "I wouldn't mess with it."

The arrest of former Ku Klux Klan leader Edgar Ray Killen Thursday in one of the most horrific crimes of the civil rights era was for some a satisfying culmination of a long-delayed hunt for justice.

But others here would rather forget the crime, along with the stain of violent racism it left.

Killen, 79, and his wife, Betty Jo, have lived in the same house for 40 years and are familiar figures in the small, rural Mississippi town that became infamous with the 1964 slayings dramatized in the 1988 movie "Mississippi Burning."

James Chaney, a 21-year-old black Mississippian, and two white New Yorkers, Andrew Goodman, 20, and Michael Schwerner, 24, were ambushed by Klansmen, beaten and shot. Killen is the first to face state murder charges in their deaths.

Long a focus of suspicion, Killen made a livelihood from farming, operating a sawmill and preaching to a small congregation at Smyrna Baptist Church.

He's old now -- a tall, thin man with a balding head. He is being held in isolation at the Neshoba County Jail and pleaded not guilty Friday to three counts of murder.

County NAACP President Leroy Clemons said the arrest brought relief to a community haunted by the ghosts of the slain young men, and helped heal long-open wounds.

"There's been a feeling of futility over the years about nothing being done," said Stanley Dearman, the retired editor and publisher of the weekly newspaper, The Neshoba Democrat. "The case is just as current now as it was the night the murders were committed, legally and morally."

But at Barrett's Barbershop, Kenneth Wells snorted when asked if he thought the preacher was a killer.

"He's a preacher. He wouldn't have done nothing like that. Everybody knows Edgar Ray Killen," said Wells, a 64-year-old lifelong resident of Philadelphia.

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