By Bill Trott
Edgar Ray Killen, the preacher and Ku Klux Klansman convicted and sent to prison more than 40 years after he plotted the 1964 slayings of three civil rights activists in the “Mississippi Burning” case, died on Thursday night at the age of 92, Mississippi correction officials said
Killen, who would have turned 93 on Jan. 17, was pronounced dead at the hospital at Mississippi State Penitentiary, according to a statement on the state Department of Corrections website on Friday.
The cause and manner of death were pending an autopsy, the statement said. No foul play was suspected.
Killen, whose 2005 manslaughter conviction came on the 41st anniversary of the crime, was serving a 60-year prison sentence – the maximum 20 years for each victim. In a 2015 interview with the Associated Press, Killen refused to discuss his case but said he was still a segregationist, although he had no ill will for blacks.
The slayings of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner in Philadelphia, Mississippi, on June 21, 1964, at the hands of the Klan, local law enforcement officers and others was one of the most shocking and galvanizing moments of the U.S. civil rights movement.
Historians say the outcry over the incident, which was portrayed in the 1988 Oscar-winning film “Mississippi Burning,” helped win support for subsequent civil rights legislation, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965
Chaney was a 21-year-old black man from Meridian, Mississippi, while Schwerner, 24, and Goodman, 20, were white New Yorkers
They were part of a campaign to register black voters in the South during the “Freedom Summer” and caught the attention of law enforcement authorities and Klansmen when they came to Philadelphia.
The three men had been taken into custody on a speeding charge and while they were detained, Killen assembled the mob that later would chase them down and kill them, prosecutors said at his 2005 trial. Killen, who operated a sawmill and was known by the nickname Preacher because he presided part time at a Baptist church, told the mob to buy gloves and how to dispose of the bodies but was not accused of being at the murder scene, the prosecution said.
NO STATE CHARGES
Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman were shot on a rural road near Killen’s home and then buried 15 feet deep in an earthen dam. Their disappearance became a national news story and federal agents were sent to search for them. Thanks to an informant, the bodies were discovered 44 days after the killings.
The state of Mississippi declined to pursue murder charges in the case but in 1967, 18 men, including Killen, local Klan leader Sam Bowers and the county sheriff, were tried on federal charges of violating the victims’ civil rights.
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