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Mississippi verdict greeted by a generation gap

Since 1989, authorities have reexamined 22 civil rights era murders and made 25 arrests.

By Kris AxtmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 23, 2005


In some ways, the meaning of this week's manslaughter conviction in a high-profile 1964 case involving three murdered civil rights workers is distilled in the responses of two men in this small Mississippi logging community.

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For Leroy Clemens, a local NAACP leader who pushed hard to have the case reopened, the trial's outcome is an important symbolic victory - helping the town and region step out from a cloud of infamy. "Today we have cause for hope," he said after the verdict.

But Jamar Hardy, a younger African-American, doesn't see what all the fuss is about. For him, the future doesn't hinge on the prosecution and conviction of the man alleged to have organized the infamous Freedom Summer killings. "That wouldn't happen today," says Mr. Hardy, finishing his shift at Domino's Pizza. "We are a different breed from them."

The different generational views speak volumes about this region's transformation. Just as the civil rights movement helped create a more tolerant climate in which Hardy grew up, so a new push for justice is helping many - white and black - close the book on sordid chapters of a region's history.

"The fact that the white South wants to pursue these [decades-old] cases indicates that many people want to get right on the racial question and repent for the history that these miscarriages of justice have represented," says Harry Watson, director of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "As a result, they are feeling an immense burden lifted off them."

Since 1989, authorities have reexamined 22 deaths from the civil rights era and made 25 arrests, leading to 16 convictions. Many believe the next case to wind up in court will be that of Emmett Till, who as a 14-year-old was tortured and killed in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman while visiting family in Money, Miss. Earlier this month, the FBI exhumed his body and performed an autopsy in hopes of bringing several indictments.

That latest burden lifted comes here, amid lofty pine trees of eastern Mississippi. A jury Tuesday convicted Edgar Ray Killen, an ordained Baptist minister and former Ku Klux Klan leader, of helping orchestrate the 1964 killings of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner - who were targeted for their voter-registration activities. Mr. Killen is scheduled to be sentenced Thursday to a sentence that, while it cannot exceed 60 years, could in effect imprison him for life.

"We won't be ... known throughout the world by a Hollywood movie anymore," said Neshoba County District Attorney Mark Duncan, referring to "Mississippi Burning," the 1988 movie based on the case. "Today the people in Neshoba County told the world who we really are."

For the most part, the emotion over whether to try Killen after all these years was split less along color lines than along generational lines. Many who witnessed the tragedies say the injustices need to be corrected no matter how long the process takes. Their children and grandchildren, who have grown up with the benefit of interracial peace, tend to say the past is the past. They are all about the future. "I don't see a big civil-rights crusading mentality among young people or even young black people right now," says Mr. Watson. "They don't seem to think it's such a big deal because there is a less rigid dichotomy between blacks and whites these days."