The search for closure in a Mississippi town

With Edgar Ray Killen back on trial after four decades, a state struggles - again - with vestiges of its segregationist past.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Surrounded by tabby cats, under a canopy of oaks on his porch overlooking muddy cow country, Edgar Ray Killen grew old. His contemporaries remember gangs with sling blades and men in pointy white hats with holes for eyes. But most people in this town of 8,000 had forgotten the ordained Baptist minister who eked out a living on his backyard sawmill.

Forty-one years ago, state prosecutors say, Mr. Killen helped kidnap and kill three civil rights workers. Last week, a stooped Killen returned to court and barked a hoarse "not guilty" at the judge. So began the latest, and perhaps the biggest, in a series of recent reckonings of civil rights era crimes - a turn of events that some see as a hopeful sign of righting old wrongs, some decry as a pointless dredging of the past, and some liken to the hunt for Nazi war criminals.

The case may be another sign of transition in a town - and a state - that has struggled for years to leave behind its segregationist past.

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"I'm sure there are people in Philadelphia who wish it would all just go away, but there are some people, at least, who think it's long overdue, and that the town can't begin to heal itself without exposure of what happened, who did it, and finally see justice," says Harry Watson, the director of the Center for the Study of the American South in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Trials revisiting, and sometimes revising, Southern segregation have come in quick succession in the past decade, from the 1994 conviction of Byron de la Beckwith for the assassination of NAACP organizer Medgar Evers in Mississippi; to the 1998 conviction of former Klan wizard Sam Bowers in a 1966 firebombing, also in Mississippi; to the recent conviction of two men involved in the 1963 bombing that killed four black girls at Alabama's 16th Street Baptist Church.

On the streets of Philadelphia, Miss., the trial comes at a time when physical intimidation of blacks is largely gone. But longtime residents still remember the sheriff's 10 p.m. curfews in black neighborhoods when, if lights stayed on, whites might toss sticks of dynamite through living-room windows.

"The New South is just the Old South with a smile," says William Morgan, an African-American who was 12 when Killen and 18 others allegedly kidnapped two white Northern civil rights workers and a black man working with them, killed them, buried their bodies in a railroad embankment west of town, and set their station wagon on fire. Mr. Morgan's parents were housing civil rights workers at the time.

Mississippi, like other Southern states, has made undeniable progress in race relations. Diminished prejudice, a low cost of living, and rising demographic trends have lured many, including actor Morgan Freeman, to the Magnolia State. But the long shadows of the Civil War still fall here, and movies such as "Mississippi Burning," which was based on the Killen case, as well as scandals tying powerful state politicians to segregationist groups, continue to define Mississippi.

"What has really marked Mississippi as a sort of the 'South of the South' has been the society," says Watson. "Companies don't want to go there, professionals don't want to go there. On the other hand, there are a lot of black people moving back, and obviously folks are looking for something they can't find anywhere else in the country. As Mississippi addresses these ghosts of the past, then more people will be willing to do that."

While the kidnapping plot was hatched in House and finalized in Meridian, it was carried out in Philadelphia, and it's here that the memory is strongest. Some say Killen is simply a scapegoat - "the surrogate for sins of the whole people," says J. Wayne Flynt, a civil rights historian at Auburn University in Alabama. Authorities should leave him alone, one argument goes, and let the aging icon live out his days in a society he couldn't, in the end, control. Certainly, there's a weary ambivalence here. Philadelphia wants to move on - and many are finally confident it will.

"Right is right and wrong is wrong," says Harold Smith, owner of a hardware store in Union, where the past hangs in the rafters along with farm implements and the dust of decades. "In the end, everyone has their day of reckoning."

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