Recently, the state of Mississippi and federal government announced they were ending efforts to bring any further cases in the 1964 civil rights murders of Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney. This is unfortunate. Successfully bringing cold cases so many years later is incredibly difficult. Many of the culpable individuals have died and memories of witnesses have faded. But despite being understandable as a legal matter, this decision saddens me. There was only one prosecution by the state of Mississippi against any of the individuals involved in this atrocity, and the effort demonstrated how difficult justice can be to obtain but how crucial it is to pursue.
I know because I was there. In 2005, the state of Mississippi brought murder charges against Edgar Ray Killen, a self-avowed “preacher” who had coordinated the connection between the gang of Klansman and sheriff's office. At the time, I was a first-year law professor at the University of Mississippi, teaching civil rights law. I went down to Neshoba County for the murder trial, and brought one of my students from the area with me. It was a moving experience that I will never forget.
Remember, this had been a crime that had captivated the entire nation. The three civil rights workers were in Mississippi to register black voters during Freedom Summer. They were murdered by Klansmen working in direct connection with the sheriff's office. President Johnson sent the National Guard to find the bodies of the missing civil rights workers. But the state of Mississippi, the entity primarily responsible for seeking justice, did nothing. Forty years later, a community coalition of whites, blacks, and Native Americans issued a “call for justice,” urging officials to bring prosecutions against anyone who was still alive. This culminated in Killen’s trial.
Killen’s lawyer argued that the state was dredging up bad memories, and should be focused on moving forward. My student and I saw things differently. To us, bringing a murder prosecution in open court was a visible and important acknowledgement by the state of Mississippi that it had created and maintained a two-tier system of justice. The trial demonstrated what an affront that flawed system was to every notion of true justice. But it also drove home how far we have come as a nation in a relatively brief period of time. White Supremacists showed up at the trial, but now they inspired no fear. They were an embarrassment and a sideshow. And the jury convicted Edgar Ray Killen with what amounts to a life sentence for manslaughter.
Legally, this successful prosecution was somewhat of a perfect storm. Apart from the political will generated by the community, there was a defendant who was still alive, and testimony of deceased witnesses had been preserved by prior proceedings. In no way did this prosecution create total justice for Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney, or for countless other victims of the institutionalized racism that existed in Mississippi and elsewhere in that period. Nor did it end racism or the unequal access to justice that exists in our system. In the aftermath of the trial, the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi released a statement, noting that “an ancient proverb teaches that a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. Neshoba County has taken that first step. Today justice was served … but justice is still incomplete.”
But Killen’s trial was a step. In the sensationalized world we live in, one unfortunate reality is that nothing gets people to pay attention like a juicy trial. The trial was covered by national and international media outlets. People noticed, and many reflected on notions of racial justice.
As a famous Mississippian, William Faulkner, famously said: “The past is never dead. It is not even past.” For this reason, we must never cease in our pursuit of justice.