In June 1964, civil rights volunteer Andrew Goodman sent a postcard home to New York: “Dear Mom and Dad, I have arrived safely in Meridian, Miss. This is a wonderful town and weather is fine, I wish you were here. The people in this city are wonderful and our reception was very good. All my love, Andy.”
Within hours, Goodman went missing in rural Mississippi, along with two fellow activists, fellow Jew Andrew Schwerner and James Chaney, in a case that rocked the United States.
On June 21, exactly 41 years to the day after the murders, Edgar Ray Killen was convicted of manslaughter in the first murder trial brought by the state of Mississippi in the case, made famous in the 1988 movie “Mississippi Burning.”
On June 23, Circuit Court Judge Marcus Gordon sentenced the 80-year-old Killen to the maximum 60 years in prison, effectively a life sentence for the ailing Ku Klux Klansman.
The conviction and sentence partially closed a chapter in American civil rights history. They also reminded Americans – and the world – of a time when Jews and blacks worked together for a common goal.
Mississippi klansmen stayed away from the new trial because they felt any organized protest would hurt Killen. Still, klansmen from Georgia and Florida escorted Killen to the courthouse on the first few days of the trial.
Cole Thornton, Imperial Klaliff of the American White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, said, “Our interest is just to see that this man gets through this, to try to help him any way we can.”
Thornton added he was trying to show “a little support. Show him that there’s still people out there that still care about the rights in this country. We don’t have civil rights other people have. We’re already, you know, stepped on, and that’s OK.”
While the guilty verdict was welcomed – though some expressed regret that it was for manslaughter instead of murder – many expressed the hope that it wouldn’t be the end of the story.
“What is important is that we seek to understand how a government became complicit in terror and how good people looked aside and let it happen,” said Rita Schwerner Bender, Schwerner’s widow. “If we don’t understand that then we don’t do our duty to a democracy, because governments can run amok again.”
She added that she hopes the trial will be a catalyst “for a very important discussion which could potentially lead to some change and some healing.”
If the trial is the last chapter in the story, she said, “then it won’t have lasting effect.”
Gordon denied a motion for a new trial, but Killen’s attorneys say they plan to appeal to the Mississippi Supreme Court.
John Steele, one of the three surviving members of Mt. Zion Church who were beaten in 1964, said he wants to see “a full measure of justice, not just one-eighth.” He questioned why “one man is in place of a mob” on trial, when a mob was involved in the murders.
“I find it questionable that only one person is standing trial,” agreed Bernice Sims, who had breakfast with the three men the day they were killed, adding that Killen was able to live 40 additional years into his 80s before facing trial.
Sims also believes the trial was held for reasons other than justice, such as the state’s economy or image grandstanding.
Jimmie Travis said he wants “all those involved who are still alive tried.”
He also wants to see investigations into the cases of “other individuals who were lynched at that time, and their bodies buried.”
Travis suspects authorities were tipped off to the location of the bodies of the three civil rights workers to keep them from finding other bodies in the county. Some claim that eight bodies were found during the 44-day search for the civil rights workers.
“There should be a complete investigation into the murders of everybody that was found during the search for the three,” he said.
Steele built a community center in 1968 that was the site of one of the two memorial services on June 19. The community center burned in 1982, and the service was held outside its shell on a remote road one mile from Mt. Zion Church.
The service was organized by veterans of the civil rights movement, who wanted a service reminiscent of one held in 2003, with more stories from the 1960s.
The church also held its annual service, which was more a memorial and less activist than the civil rights veterans’ service.
At the service, Leroy Clemens, president of the Philadelphia NAACP, thanked “each of you who didn’t give up on Mississippi, because Mississippi is a changing place.
“A new generation has grown up that does not know the fear that the Klan wrought on this county,” he said.
Rabbi Debra Kassoff of the Institute for Southern Jewish Life gave the invocation at the church, speaking of the workers’ pursuit of tikkun olam, a Jewish concept that means repairing the world.
“What were they doing if not searching for the hidden sparks in the dust of a Mississippi summer?” she asked.