Justice Delayed

Commentary on the conviction of Edgar Ray Killen for manslaughter for the Killing of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner in 1964 and reminiscences of living in Mississippi at the time

by Alec Clayton, 2005

I was recently honored to be included on a panel discussion about the conviction of Edgar Ray Killen for the killing of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1964. On the panel with me were three heavyweights in the ongoing struggle for civil rights: Reiko Callner, head of the Washington State Human Rights Commission; Nat Jackson, a lifelong civil rights advocate and founder of the James Byrd Foundation; and Milt Ruffin, a paralegal with the Washington State Attorney General’s Office.

The case should be familiar to everyone. In 1964 three civil rights workers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, were murdered. Eventually their bodies were found buried in a dam on a farm near Philadelphia. There was an obvious conspiracy behind the murders involving the Ku Klux Klan and local and area police and politicians. Klansmen bragged about it. Pretty much everyone knew who was responsible, but nobody was talking. Before the bodies were found, Mississippi Gov. Paul B. Johnson joked that “Governor (George) Wallace and I are the only two people who know where they are, and we’re not telling.”

The state of Mississippi did nothing, but the federal government did step in to prosecute 18 men, including Killen. Seven of them were convicted; none served more than six years. Killen walked away a free man.

Forty-one years later Killen was brought to trial by the state of Mississippi and convicted of manslaughter.

Of the four panelists who talked about these events in a presentation at Temple Beth Hatfiloh in Olympia, three of us had grown up in the Deep South and were in the area when the murders took place: Milt and myself in Mississippi and Nat in Louisiana.

Milt reminisced about picking cotton on a Mississippi Delta plantation as a boy, and bragged that he could pick 200 pounds in a day.

Milt talked about conflicting messages he received while growing up. He said that his mother taught him to look a man in the face when you talk to him, but society said that when a black person talked to a white person he had to look down at the ground. A black person could be beaten or killed for looking a white person in the face. But Milt said he looked everyone in the face. Fortunately, he said, his family was well respected in the community by both blacks and whites, so he was able to get away with the normally unforgivable impertinence of looking a white man in the face.

When it was Nat’s turn to speak, he also bragged about picking cotton, saying Milt’s 200 pounds was nothing. “I picked as much as 500 pounds,” he said (I paraphrase, having not taken note of the exact quote).

Nat had marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and he has spoken face-to-face with presidents (not hesitating to meet them eye to eye). He said that when talking to President George W. Bush he could tell that Bush was uncomfortable talking to black people. “I’ve been black for 62 years,” he said. “I can tell when I white man is uncomfortable with blacks.” (again I paraphrase.) He said that President Clinton, on the other hand, was at ease with black people.

Reiko is a beautiful woman of Japanese and Jewish descent. She has experienced bigotry for both sides of her heritage. She recalled being harassed as a child because she was “Chinese.” She said she was confused by that because, in the first place she wasn’t Chinese and, in the second place, why would anyone dislike her just because she was Chinese?

I did not bring to the panel the knowledge or experience of the other three panelists. I spoke about the political and social climate in Mississippi at the time from the perspective of a middle class white male. Hopefully I was able to shed a little light on a question that has bothered me since the 1960s, and that is: Why did so many good white people in Mississippi stand by and do nothing in the face of virulent racism?

Edmund Burke has famously said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” I was one of those good men who did nothing. So was everyone I knew in Mississippi in 1964. The fact that I was only 21 years old at the time is not much of an excuse. James Chaney was also 21, Andrew Goodman only 20.

Here’s a slightly better excuse: I didn’t know any better. That’s not good enough, and it’s not 100 percent true, but it may come as close as anything to describing the situation of many Southern whites at the time. It may be hard for people from outside the Deep South to understand this, but it was almost impossible for Southern whites to not harbor some racist attitudes. We drank them along with our mothers’ milk. We were taught practically from infancy that blacks were lesser creatures, not fully human  creatures that were to be taken care of the way we’d take care of pets. We were taught that blacks had actually been better off under slavery. We believed that. It was in our schoolbooks. Nobody ever contradicted it. We were taught that the paternalistic and patronizing way good white people treated blacks was for their own good, and that we would solve our own race problems if meddling outsiders would just leave us alone. We knew there had been, and continued to be, horrible offenses such as lynchings, but we were taught that such horrors had always been committed by a radical minority.

I was born in Tupelo in 1943 and moved to Hattiesburg in 1955. Philadelphia is halfway between Tupelo and Hattiesburg.

The world I lived in was totally segregated. Blacks were allowed to shop in white-owned stores, but they could not use the restrooms or eat in white-owned restaurants or drink from the same water fountains. As everyone knows, they had to sit in the back of the bus, and their children attended separate schools with inferior materials handed down from the white schools. Blacks could not swim in municipal swimming pools. They couldn’t even swim in some of the lakes and rivers, or they were restricted to certain parts of lakes and rivers. The local movie theater had a separate entrance for blacks, who sat in the balcony.

The only black person I knew as a child was the family maid. Her name was Christine. She had an estranged husband called Hawg Jaw. I never met him, but I heard terrifying tales about him. Apparently he had been thrown in jail for knife fighting. I remember my older brother talking about him and saying, “You can shoot a n--- in the head and it won’t kill him, but they’re scared of knives.”

Such myths about black people were passed around as gospel truth and nobody questioned them. The N word was so common as to be virtually meaningless to most white people. For example, Brazil nuts were called n--- toes. I was a teenager before I found out that wasn’t the real name. Sides in games were decided by going eenie, meenie, miny mo catch a n--- by the toe.

Racism was so ubiquitous that most of us who were white were blind to it. I remember the first time I was made aware of racial prejudice. My parents had rented a cabin on a lake, and my brother and I had befriended a young black boy, the son of a caretaker at a nearby home. We played with him every day. Somehow my brother and I made friends with a wealthy white woman who lived on the far shore of the lake. She told us we could swim at her pier anytime we wanted (she had a floating platform with a diving board). But the first time we went to swim off her pier we took our friend with us, and she ran us off. Later, she called my mother to explain that it was our black friend who was not welcome. We never went back, with or without him.

I can’t remember experiencing any other racist incidents until my senior year in high school when civil rights activists were pushing for school integration. Kids at my school marched around campus chanting “Two, four, six, eight, we will never integrate.” I didn’t know what the word integrate meant. When I found out, I was confused. Integration didn’t seem like a bad idea to me, but all my friends were vehemently opposed to it. I like to think if just one student or teacher in that school had spoken out in favor of integration I would have joined in, but maybe not. It’s hard to remember exactly how I felt at the time.

That same year a black man tried to enroll in Mississippi Southern College (now the University of Southern Mississippi). I’m not sure if my memory is accurate, but this is how I remember it: first, a dead chicken was planted in his car and he was arrested for chicken stealing, and then he was committed to the state insane asylum. Folks joked that obviously he was crazy if he thought he could go to Southern.

It was three years later when Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman were murdered. At the time I had just returned home after a two-year tour of active duty with the Navy Reserve and was working part-time for my parents in their sporting goods store while taking classes at the local college. Hunters and fishermen hung out in the store, and their talk often turned to the case. The common saying among them was: I don’t know what everybody’s getting so excited about.  Ain’t nothing but a bunch of good ol’ boys coon hunting up there in Philadelphia.

These were not stereotypical rednecks. They were, in most respects, good people. Looking back now, 41 years later, I wonder how any human being could have been so callous. I wonder how they could have made cheap jokes about fellow human beings who had been brutally murdered. But then I remember that to those people at that time the victims were not human.

There were other incidents over the next few years, including the murder two years later of civil rights activist Vernon Dahmer in Hattiesburg. (Like the Killen case, it took the state of Mississippi a long time to convict Dahmer’s murderer, ex Klan leader Samuel Bowers. He was convicted 32 years later in 1998. Incidentally, he had previously been one of the defendants convicted in the earlier federal case for his connection with the murders of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman. If I may inject another parenthetical statement here: I was gratified to find out that the presiding judge in the Bowers case was an old friend, Richard McKenzie.)

The state of Mississippi began to change, partly because of federal law and partly because some white Mississippians were awakened by the extreme violence of the time. By 1968, my senior year at the University of Southern Mississippi, the college that had fought integration so hard had become fully integrated without further resistance. That spring I saw, for the first time in Mississippi, a black family eating in a previously segregated restaurant. 

I joined the U.S. Teachers Corps, a federal program in cooperation with local colleges and schools. Fifty of us half black and half white, the most fully integrated bunch ever in Hattiesburg went through an accelerated training course and then were sent into the local elementary schools to integrate the faculties for the first time. So I became one of the first white teachers ever to teach in previously all-black schools in Mississippi. It was a gratifying experience.

I left Mississippi after that, but returned in 1977 and spent another 11 years in Hattiesburg, where my wife and I published an alternative weekly newspaper that championed civil rights. Needless to say, ours was not the most popular paper in town, but we were much better received than we would have been a decade earlier. During that time I was constantly struck by the contradictions of the so-called “New South.” In many ways Mississippi and the South had made tremendous strides in overcoming their racist heritage, and they were justifiably proud of that progress. On the other hand, I saw many signs that the majority of Mississippians still harbored racist attitudes.

State officials now point to the conviction of Edgar Ray Killen as proof of their progress. But we have to wonder why it took 41 years, and why none of Killen’s co-conspirators were brought to trial, and we have to wonder why Mississippians keep re-electing racist politicians such as Thad Cochran and Trent Lott, both of whom recently voted against the senate resolution apologizing for not passing anti-lynching laws.

The most oft-quoted passage from Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech still applies:

“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

copyright © Alec Clayton 2005


Home        Art        Writing

Top of page