Vol. 17 No. 1 (January, 2007) pp.25-28
JUSTICE IN MISSISSIPPI: THE MURDER TRIAL OF EDGAR RAY KILLEN, by Howard Ball. University Press of Kansas, 2006. 272pp. Hardcover. $29.95. ISBN: 0700614613.
Reviewed by Christopher Malone, Department of Political Science, Pace University. Email: cmalone [at] pace.edu.
The story of the deaths of Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman were well known before the summer of 2005 when, after forty-one years, a Neshoba County jury found Edgar Ray Killen guilty on three counts of manslaughter in their deaths. What happened in between the night of their untimely murders and Killen’s conviction is the subject of Howard Ball’s engaging if somewhat repetitive new book, JUSTICE IN MISSISSIPPI. Ball, a professor of law at Vermont Law School, taught at Mississippi State University in the 1970s and 1980s. It is clear from his recitation of the “Preacher” Killen story that Ball is intimately familiar with the state as well as the players involved. In fact, this is the second time he has written about it – and JUSTICE IN MISSISSIPPI should be seen as an important follow up to his MURDER IN MISSISSIPPI.
Ball’s story begins long ago in what many might describe as a land foreign to the Mississippi in which the 80 year-old Killen was convicted on June 21st, 2005. Three civil rights workers –Schwerner and Goodman white, Chaney black – were brutally murdered exactly forty-one years earlier in the dark quiet of a dirty back road in Neshoba County, Mississippi. They came against the backdrop of an extraordinary, and extraordinarily turbulent, period in American history. Within that year alone stretching back to the summer of 1963, Martin Luther King had given his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington, John F. Kennedy had been assassinated, and Lyndon Johnson was about to sign the most important piece of civil rights legislation in the nation’s history outside of the Fourteenth Amendment. The country was already roiling, and the senseless murders of these three brave young men – who had descended upon Neshoba County simply to try to register blacks to vote – only exacerbated the conflict over civil rights in the heart of the Old Confederacy.
Their story became the rallying cry for the civil rights movement, and in 1967, after three years of investigation by the FBI, the federal government indicted eighteen Mississippi Klansmen for conspiracy to commit murder. Seven were convicted. But not surprisingly, no one was ever brought to trial at the state level for the deaths of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman. National attention waned; the civil rights movement ran out of steam, and soon the deaths of the three civil rights workers were put in the “cold case” file.
Interest was revived in 1988 when Hollywood got in on the act and released the blockbuster film “Mississippi Burning.” Despite its glaring inaccuracies and glorifying interpretation of actual events [*26] (particularly of the FBI agents played by Willem Dafoe and Gene Hackman), the film had educated a new generation of Americans (not to say Mississipians) who had never heard of the case of the three civil rights workers. Momentum to reopen the case picked up in the 1990s as a new generation of Mississippians came of age and sought to prove to the world that the “New South” had in fact come to Neshoba County. After several more years of agitation and false starts, Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood and Neshoba County District Attorney Mark Duncan teamed up to return a successful indictment for murder of Edgar Ray Killen in the Neshoba County Courthouse in January 2005. On June 21st, 2005, exactly forty-one years after the heinous murders, Killen was convicted of manslaughter. Alas, the state of Mississippi had finally held someone accountable for the deaths of Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman.
To be sure, the trial of Killen captivated the nation in the summer of 2005 as national and international media descended upon and overwhelmed tiny Philadelphia, Mississippi for the weeklong court proceedings. In other words, the trial became a media spectacle saved for only those rare occasions when the likes of O.J. Simpson or Michael Jackson have their day in court. By June 21st, 2005, few in the United States did not know who Edgar Ray Killen was or who the three slain civil rights workers were. And the sight of the former Klansman being wheeled into court with an unrepentant smile on his face brought the nation back to a time when southern whites brutalized blacks with impunity. In this sense, the specter of the Killen trial was much more significant than Simpson’s or Jackson’s – if not as dramatic.
Ball’s narrative unfolds easily and without effort, in a way that any good investigative reporter would tell the story. In this sense, JUSTICE IN MISSISSIPPI is an extremely easy read for any audience – no doubt exactly the way Ball and the editors at the University Press of Kansas wanted it. His methodology is mainly the interview: Ball had access to all the major players over the last forty years who were still alive (save for Killen himself) and who played major roles in moving the improbable indictment forward. He pieces together the story with precision and ease, and sets the table for understanding the actual court case when he gets to it in the penultimate chapter. There is very little commentary in Ball’s prose, and even less analysis – which, given the media hype surrounding the trial, can only be seen as a good thing.
And yet, there is something oddly anti-climactic to Ball’s book which might not altogether be his fault. In fact, the same needs to be said about the Killen trial itself, and JUSTICE IN MISSISSIPPI only mirrors that reality. After all, here was one of the most brutal slayings by white supremacist thugs during the civil rights era – a case which pitted not only white against black, but also Northern “agitators” against Southern “racists,” and the federal government against the state government of Mississippi. Both whites and blacks were murdered – a fact which no doubt raised the profile of the slayings both at the time and in the [*27] ensuing years, and one which Ball does not really address adequately. The case, in other words, was a microcosm of the Jim Crow South, the messy reality of the civil rights movement and southern resistance to it, and our clumsy attempt as a nation to move beyond our own system of apartheid.
But when the time came for the trial to begin, there was the frail and handicapped Killen who was a pathetic shell of the man painted as the Mastermind of the murders and as the face of evil incarnate. During the trial he had to be rushed to the hospital because of high blood pressure and court proceedings were suspended until he was released the next morning. On the other side, there was the team for the prosecution, which produced no new surprise witnesses with no new shocking testimony from turncoat aging ex-Klansmen who had decided to get right with their Maker by confessing. Indeed, the prosecution could only prove their case by having actors read the words of dead witnesses that had testified under oath at the 1967 federal conspiracy trial of the eighteen Klansmen. The defense tried to block the testimony, arguing there was simply no way to cross-examine a dead man. Prohibiting the testimony through reenactment no doubt would have sunk the prosecution’s entire case – but the judge allowed it. And so, Killen was done in by a bunch of dead Klansmen making trouble from beyond the grave.
The trial lasted barely a week; the jury had deliberated for a little less than five hours in returning their conviction on three counts of manslaughter. After forty-one years, the trial of Edgar Ray Killen was over, seemingly just like that. And while Ball seeks to provide some final context on truth, reconciliation and change in Mississippi in the wake of the case in his closing chapter, the book ends in much the same way the trial did – seemingly just like that.
If there was any high drama in the case, and a piece to this story which could have been explored further, it perhaps came when Judge Marcus Gordon turned his attention to the duty of sentencing Killen. On the day of sentencing, Killen was wheeled into a packed courtroom in his yellow Neshoba County jump suit. As Ball tells it, Gordon asked the bailiff to wheel Killen in front of the bench. He then stated:
I have to pass on a sentence to a person who is 80 years old. A person who has suffered serious injury. There are those of you in this courtroom who would say a sentence of 10 years would be a life sentence. . . I take no pleasure at all in pronouncing sentence. The three gentlemen who were killed, each life has value, and each life is equally as valuable as the other life, and I have taken that into consideration. That there are three lives involved in this case, and the three lives should absolutely be respected and treated equally (p.176).
Gordon then unceremoniously meted out the maximum sentence to Killen for each count of manslaughter – 20 years each for the killings of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman, for a total of 60 years.
Ball lingers over the sentencing for several pages, but does it in a way that is consistent with the rest of the book: rather than offer his own analysis, Ball [*28] quotes those involved in the case and the major media outlets across the country. In other words, he lets other do the talking – perhaps both the greatest strength and the greatest weakness to JUSTICE IN MISSISSIPPI. It is at times like this in the story that one craves the sophisticated analysis of a political scientist and professor of law who is intimately familiar with his subject matter like Ball is.
William Faulkner said once that “the past is not dead. It is not even past.” JUSTICE IN MISSISSIPPI should remind us that the sordid history of race discrimination in the United States is not necessarily dead, nor even in the past. Ball wisely quotes Rita Schwerner Bender, widow of Michael Schwerner and one of the true heroes of this tragedy, in the closing chapter: “I hope this case is just the beginning and not an end. I hope this conviction helps to shed light on what has happened” (p.195). This is exactly what Ball’s work has done, and in this sense it is a significant contribution. And yet, a danger lies in complacency – in the thought that, as the old guard Klansmen die off and the rest like Killen are sent to prison, we have won the battle over racial bigotry because “that was all in the past . . .” Recalling the TRC in South Africa led by Desmond Tutu after the fall of the apartheid government, Ball closes with a discussion of his own on truth and reconciliation in the New Mississippi and the New South. We must never forget that reconciliation is not the same as forgetting – the latter of which was the way Mississippi had dealt with the deaths of Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman for more than a quarter century. Reconciliation is something entirely different . . . it is an ongoing process.
Ball, Howard. 2004. MURDER IN MISSISSIPPI: UNITED STATES v. PRICE AND THE STRUGGLE FOR CIVIL RIGHTS. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.
© Copyright 2007 by the author, Christopher Malone.