JACKSON, Miss. – Edgar Ray Killen, one of the 1960s, the Ku Klux Klan leader who was convicted decades later in the “Mississippi Burning” slayings of three civil rights workers, has died in prison at the age of 92, the state of the corrections department announced.
Killen was where three consecutive 20 years for manslaughter when he died at 9 a.m., Thursday in the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman. An autopsy was pending, but no foul play was suspected, the statement said Friday.
His conviction came 41 years to the day after James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, all in their 20s, were ambushed and killed by the Klan.
The three Freedom Summer workers had been investigating the burning of a black church near Philadelphia, Mississippi. A deputy sheriff in Philadelphia arrested them in a file on the charges, then released after reports of a mob. Mississippi governor claimed that their disappearance was a hoax, and segregationist Sen. Jim Eastland, told President Lyndon Johnson was a “publicity stunt” before their bodies were unearthed.
The massacre shocked the nation, helped spur passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and were dramatized in the film 1988 “Mississippi Burning.” The title of the film came from the name of the FBI investigation.
Killen, a part-time preacher and sawmill operator, was 80, when a Neshoba County jury of nine white people and three black people, convicted him of three counts of manslaughter on June 21, 2005, despite his assertions that he was innocent. Prosecutors said Killen initiator of the massacre, then went elsewhere as he would have an alibi.
Killen was the only person to ever face state murder charges, and even then, it was the lesser cost of manslaughter in state prison.
“It was not murder. It was murder,” David Goodman, Andrew’s younger brother, observed Friday.
“His life spanned a period in this country, where the members of the Ku Klux Klan if he were able to believe that they had a right to the lives of other people, and that is a form of terrorism,” Goodman said. “Many of the names of black lives with impunity.”
Schwerner, a white New Yorker, moved to Mississippi in early 1964 to work on black voter registration and other projects. Chaney was a black Mississippian who became friends with him. Andrew Goodman, another white New Yorker, underwent civil rights training in Ohio and arrived in Mississippi a day before he, Schwerner and Chaney were killed. Researchers search for their bodies found the bodies of other black men who were murdered in Mississippi, including two that were brutalized before being dumped in the Mississippi River.
Schwerner’s widow, Rita Schwerner Bender, said on the day Killen was convicted of the massacre were part of a larger problem of violence in Mississippi against black people and others who challenged the segregationist status quo.
“Preacher Killen did not act in a vacuum and the members of the ku klux Klan, who were members of the police and the sheriff’s department and the highway patrol do not act in a vacuum,” she said.
Goodman said Friday that Killen’s passing is a reminder that the problems of racism and white nationalism remain today. He pointed to the violent rally of white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, as an example.
Killen wouldn’t say much about the murders during 2014 an interview with The Associated Press in prison. He said that he remained a segregationist, who did not believe in racial equality, but he fought harbored no ill will towards black people. Killen said that he had never spoken about the events that landed him behind bars, and would never do.
Long a suspect in the 1964 slayings, Killen had made an income from farming, which is his sawmill, and the preaching of a small church in Smyrna Baptist Church in Union, south of Philadelphia, Mississippi.
According to the FBI files and court transcripts from a 1967 federal conspiracy trial, Killen did most of the planning in the ambush murders of the civil rights of the workers. According to the witness in the 2005 murder trial, Killen served as a kleagle, or organizer, of the Klan in Neshoba County and helped set up a klavern, or local Klan group, in a neighboring province.
Nineteen men, including Killen, were indicted on federal charges in 1967, the case. Seven have been sentenced for violating the victims’ civil rights. Nothing more than six years.
Kill the federal case ended with a hung jury after a juror said she couldn’t convict a preacher. During his state trial in 2005, witnesses testified that on June 21, 1964, Killen went to Meridian to round up carloads of Klansmen to ambush Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman, telling some of the Klan members to bring plastic or rubber gloves. Witnesses said Killen then went to a Philadelphia funeral home as an alibi while the fatal attack happened.
The three bodies were found 44 days later buried in a red-clay dam in rural Neshoba County.
In February 2010, Killing called the FBI, which the government used a mafia hit man to pistol-whip and intimidate witnesses for information in the case. The federal lawsuit sought millions of dollars in damages and a declaration that his rights were violated when the FBI allegedly used a gangster known as The “Grim Reaper” during the investigation. The lawsuit was later dismissed.
In the AP interview, Killen repeated his assertion that he was not a criminal but a political prisoner. He spoke of his many friends, Sen. Eastland among them. Of one thing he was sure: “I could beat that thing if I had the mental ability.”
When she heard of Killen’s death, Chaney’s sister, the Rev. Julia Chaney Moss, said her first thought was: “God is good for him. And I’m grateful for that.”
“My last thought on this is that I want only peace and blessings for all the families, like the families of the perpetrators,” she said.
Rebecca Santana reported from New Orleans. Associated Press writer Jack Elliott Jr. contributed to this report.