Mississippi verdict greeted by a generation gap

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

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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."

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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."

Jamar Hardy, hanging out in a parking lot with fellow twentysomething Bryan Storey, exemplifies this new outlook. "It doesn't matter if you are white, black, or purple. What matters is who you are," Hardy says.

"Yeah, if it had happened today, we would have raised more hell about it," says Mr. Storey, who is white.

Although of different races, the two have been friends since grade school and consider themselves brothers.

Storey, an offshore oil-rig worker, says his father is elated that justice is finally being served. The son, however, sees no benefit to dragging the town into the US spotlight in order to lock up an aged felon.

This was the first state trial in Philadelphia's Freedom Summer case. In 1967, when no state charges were brought, 18 Klansmen were tried on federal civil rights charges. A hung jury failed to convict Killen and only seven others were found guilty, receiving very light sentences.

Stanley Dearman was newspaper editor of the Neshoba Democrat during those years, finally retiring in 2000. He says after the federal trials in 1967, "nobody wanted to talk about it. I welcomed anybody who wanted to talk about it, but nobody ever would."

He credits the Killen prosecution, in part, to the success of other high-profile cases in recent years, several in Mississippi (see list below). "Those other cases gave us the courage that justice could be done here," says Mr. Dearman.

Some believe the manslaughter convictions didn't send a strong enough message and were hoping for first degree murder convictions. But with lost evidence and dead witnesses, some say the verdicts were appropriate.

"While these trials prove that it's never too late for justice, I worry that juries get caught up in the emotion of these 'atonement trials' and feel pressure to convict," says Jack Davis, a civil rights expert and historian at the University of Florida in Gainesville. "And that isn't justice."

Others believe while these trials may serve to soothe tensions in town, they do little to change the cultural stereotypes about the region. "Most people will never set foot in Alabama or Mississippi," says Joshua Rothman, a civil rights expert at the University of Alabama in Birmingham. "They still have that attitude that these states are backward, racist, redneck, and religiously fanatic."

Civil rights murders, revisited

1994 Murder conviction of Byron de la Beckwith for the 1963 assassination of NAACP organizer Medgar Evers in Mississippi.

1998 Murder conviction of former Ku Klux Klan wizard Sam Bowers in a 1966 firebombing, also in Mississippi.

2001, 2002 Murder convictions of Thomas Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry in the 1963 bombing that killed four black girls at a Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. Robert Chambliss was also convicted in 1977.

June 2005 Manslaughter convictions of Edgar Ray Killen in the 1964 slayings of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Miss.

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