In 2005, Av and I spent a few days in Philadelphia, Mississippi for the Edgar Ray Killen trial. We were especially interested in how it was going to turn out, as Av especially had studied the facts of the case and for years we had gone to the church service at Mt. Zion Methodist each June in memory of the James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman.
We had met members of James’ family as well as Michael’s wife, and Andrew’s mother.
I remember vividly for the trial, that we were put into the media building which had been set up, so there was a large television running with the trial going on so we could see everything very well. There were members of the media from all over the South, as well as national outlets. It was huge.
During breaks in the case, we would go outside, and down by the courthouse there would sometimes be family members who were upset in some way, or the cameras would be following teams of lawyers. There was a certain side door of the courthouse that the jurors would enter. CourtTV had a tent set up on the lawn and was beaming updates to viewers everywhere.
It was surreal to be in the midst of all of the excitement, and it was truly a very strange excitement because it was over something so cruel and mean and disgusting. Was this man, who had been such a big part of all this awfulness, who had lived freely all these years — was he really going to be convicted? Was there enough evidence, were there enough people to give testimony after all this time, to prove it?
There was one part in which I just lost it. I think in our media room, we had a closed circuit beam, because at one point, Michael Schwerner’s wife…his widow, now…was talking (pic of her in the screenshot I made, bottom-left). Her name is Rita Schwerner Bender, and she was giving testimony about when Michael — Rita called him ‘Mickey’ — left to go back to Mississippi. ‘J.E.’ is what she calls James Chaney.
Just very quickly — I was taking a transcript of all the pertinent (to us) testimony. She says:
We talked about it. We were both extremely upset about the beatings and the burning of the church. We were very worried about the church members, both the people who had been beaten and the risk to any of the other people and I know J.E. was very upset too and they decided that they needed to go back to MS. I’m sorry, it’s a little bit emotional. I’m sorry. They decided to go back to MS and go to the Mt Zion church and meet with church members.
He (Mickey) felt a terrible sense of responsibility about what had happened to the church members. He was extremely distressed.
I think he and J.E. both felt that they had a responsibility to the people who had put themselves at risk and that’s why they decided they had to go back and see those people. You don’t abandon people who you’ve put at risk.
When we were first talking about it the original thought was that I would go back with them. And I was asked to stay in Oxford, OH to continue helping with the training and so the plan was that I would stay in Ohio for another week and then I would get a ride back to Meridian with other people who were driving down.
Around 3 or 4 in the morning of June 20th, Mickey got up and got dressed, he kissed me goodbye and he left. In the blue station wagon.
That’s the very last time I saw him.
When Rita says, above, ‘Mickey got up and got dressed, he kissed me goodbye and he left. In the blue station wagon. That’s the very last time I saw him.’ the screen on the media television screen went dark. The video signal was bad, and it faded right when she gave that part of her testimony. And in my mind — and this still gets to me — I thought, that’s it, that’s when it went dark for Rita and Mickey, when he left her behind, he left her behind to stay alive while he came back to die. So all around are all these media people who have heard all the awful stuff there is in the world, and I’m sitting there crying, seeing her world go dark just as the screen did.
I have so much of it that I transcribed. Remember how last week I talked about the new statue in Ruleville of Fannie Lou Hamer? Rita said, “I was at the airport in Cincinnati and Bob Zellner and I bumped into Fannie Lou Hamer who had also been at the college for a few days and was unknown to us until we bumped into her at the airport, was traveling back to MS on another flight, and we were standing and talking when we heard that the car had been burned.
I think it really hit me for the first time that they were dead. That there was really no realistic possibility that they were still alive and Fannie Lou and I, Ms. Hamer, both started to cry. She led me over to a bench and she just wrapped her arms around me and the two of us had our faces together and both of us had, our tears were mingling with each other’s.”
On June 21, 2005, exactly 41 years to the day from the murders, Killen was convicted. At sentencing he was given 20 years for each murder.
There’s even more news about all this, going on right now.
Edgar Ray Killen’s cellmate in prison, James Stern, is now a preacher, and according to the AP is “suing over statements related to a land transfer and book and movie rights.” He “alleges reputed Ku Klux Klan leader Edgar Ray Killen gave him power of attorney while they were cellmates at the Mississippi State Penitentiary and he has taken control of 40 acres of Killen’s land.” and showed the media documents that show such at a news conference in Jackson last week.
Here’s the most interesting part of the (again, alleged) transaction of all:
Stern said he transferred the land last month to a nonprofit called Racial Reconciliation, which he controls, and would donate one acre to be used as a memorial site to the three civil rights workers.
A government clerk’s office confirmed the land had been transferred.