Edgar Ray Killen, Ku Klux Klan Leader Convicted Of Manslaughter, Dies In Prison At 92

Marianne ToddGetty Images

Edgar Ray Killen was serving three consecutive 20-year sentences for the killings of civil rights activists Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner. Reuters reported that Killen died on Thursday in the hospital at Mississippi State Penitentiary. His death was announced by authorities through a statement from the state’s corrections department website on Friday. No foul play was suspected.

Although the slayings of Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman were committed on June 21, 1964, Killen wasn’t convicted for the killings until June 21, 2005, four decades after the crimes.

Edgar Ray Killen was born in Philadelphia, Mississippi. At the time of the murders, he was a 38-year-old sawmill operator and a part-time ordained Baptist minister. He became a “kleagle,” or klavern recruiter and organizer for the Neshoba and Lauderdale County Klan.

Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman were members of the Mississippi Summer Project when they were killed.

The Mississippi Summer Project was launched in 1964 by volunteers. Its purpose was to peacefully register black voters and integrate the state segregated political system in Mississippi. According to the the Daily Beast, another goal for the Mississippi Summer Project was to establish freedom schools.

James Earl Chaney was a 21-year-old Mississippi native. He became a civil rights activist starting in high school, when he was suspended for a week for wearing an NAACP patch, and participated in several non-violent demonstrations. In 1964, he joined the Mississippi Summer Project. That is where he met Michael Schwerner and Andy Goodman.

Michael Schwerner was born in New York City on November 6, 1939, to a Jewish family. He became a social worker. In 1964, he moved to Mississippi with his wife Rita to work at the CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) office there in hopes of advancing the civil rights movement in the South.

Like Swerner, Andy Goodman was born in New York City to Jewish parents, but he was born on November 23, 1943. He was still in high school when his social activism started as he participated in a 1958 Youth March For Integrated Schools. He also attended the March on Washington in 1963.

Portraits of civil rights activists Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman
Featured image credit: Anonymous AP Images

Schwerner and Chaney had several meetings with the leaders of the Mount Zion Methodist Church in Longdale and convinced them to allow the church building to be used as a freedom school.

In June, Chaney, Schwerner, and his wife Rita traveled to Ohio for a training session to prepare volunteers for the summer’s civil rights campaign. They met Andy Goodman, who had also made the trip to Ohio for the training. While in Ohio, they received news that the Mount Zion church had been bombed and members of the congregation had been attacked by the KKK.

James, Michael, and Rita decided to return immediately to investigate. Andy Goodman joined them.

Shortly after their return to Mississippi, Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman were stopped by the police allegedly due to speeding. On June 21, the three of them were taken to a jail in Neshoba and were not released until after 10 p.m. While they were detained, Edgar Ray Killen organized the mob that would murder the civil rights workers upon their release. After paying a fine, the young activists got into their car and headed to Meridian, but never made it. Their bodies were found 44 days later. They had been shot and buried in an earthen dam near Philadelphia, Mississippi.

They were not the first civil rights activist to disappear in the South, but this time two white New Yorkers were among the victims, so the murders became major national news. Justice was demanded and FBI agents were sent to investigate. Mississippi Today reported that eighteen men, including Killen, were arrested and charged with conspiracy to violate the victims’ civil rights. Seven conspirators were convicted and eight were acquitted. Three men, including Killen, walked when their trial ended in a hung jury. The prosecution decided not to retry Killen.

According to the Washington Post It was not until 2005 that the case was reopened and Killen was arrested for three counts of murder on January 6, 2005. He was found guilty of manslaughter on June 21, 2005, 41 years to the day after the crime. The jury, consisting of nine white jurors and three black jurors, rejected the charges of murder but found him guilty of recruiting the mob that carried out the killings. He received the maximum sentence of 60 years.

“It wasn’t even murder. It was manslaughter,” David Goodman, Andrew’s younger brother, told the New York Times on Friday. “His life spanned a period in this country where members of the Ku Klux Klan like him were able to believe they had a right to take other people’s lives, and that’s a form of terrorism,” Goodman said. “Many took black lives with impunity.”

The case inspired two movies. The first, Mississippi Burning, was produced in 1988 and starred Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe. The movie was a box office success and received several Academy awards nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Director. But the movie was also widely criticized for portraying fictional FBI agents as heroes, while virtually ignoring the murdered civil rights activists.

Then Murder in Mississippi, a made-for-TV movie which concentrated on Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman was aired in 1990. It starred Tom Hulce as Michael Schwerner, Jennifer Gray as Rita, Blair Underwood as James Chaney, and Josh Charles as Andrew Goodman. Tom Hulce received a nomination for Best Actor in a TV Miniseries at the 1990 Golden Globes.