Return to Philadelphia

A trip to Mississippi during the Killen trial reveals that neither towns nor symbols change quickly.



On the drive north from New Orleans to Philadelphia, Miss., there's a hilly stretch of road across the state line where several "David Duke for Congress" signs are nailed to the pine trees on either side of the highway -- too high, evidently, for anyone to bother taking them down. Not that anyone around there could have voted for the Ku Klux Klan-affiliated Louisiana candidate, but apparently there were some people who wanted to.

Of course, if you're looking to reinforce stereotypes of racial strife in the rural South, it's not hard -- and it's still true that in Philadelphia, like in most small Southern towns, you're never far from God or a gun shop. During the retrial last month of Edgar Ray Killen, the man responsible for orchestrating the brutal slayings of three civil-rights workers in 1964, most national media coverage sought to confirm that he ought to be dismissed outright as a racist redneck ("Killen ... was waiting for me, shotgun in his sunburned arms ..." wrote Jeffrey Goldberg in The New Yorker). The accused, for his part, seemed equally committed to delivering that caricature, at times even failing to wear his false teeth in court appearances.

That's precisely the stereotype that the people of Philadelphia are hoping to stifle now that Killen was finally convicted of manslaughter of James Earl Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, and sentenced to 60 years in prison. (A defense request for Killen to be freed on an appeal bond is scheduled to be heard this week.)

"It's a stigma that everybody has to deal with in their own mind any way they can," says Stanley Dearman, the former editor of The Neshoba Democrat and a leading force in calling for the state to reopen the case. "The murder is very much a factor in the life of the town. It put us on the map. And we can face it head on for what it was -- a brutal murder committed by some of our people here and some from Meridian."

Even now, 40 years after the fact, that guilt is so deeply woven into the fabric of life in Philadelphia that it's not easily extricated.

"It reminds me in a way of what you think of Nuremberg," says Jerry Mitchell, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger reporter whose investigations led not only to the reopening of the Philadelphia killings, but to the reopening of the Medgar Evers murder case and to the eventual conviction of Byron De La Beckwith as well. "Prior to World War II, Nuremburg had a whole different reputation," he says. "But then it became known for these Nazi rallies. Now if you say Nuremburg to someone, it's synonymous with Nazism."

For many locals, the renewed publicity was like pressure-washing an old wound. Several people I encountered refused to be interviewed -- and a few who were willing to talk didn't want to be identified. As Dearman explains, Philadelphia's scars are still fresh in part because people felt scapegoated not just by the North, but by the South as well. "The civil-rights workers weren't the only 'outside agitators,'" Dearman says. "The Klan would come into town from elsewhere and get a parade permit and march around and the media said, 'Look at the Klan in Philadelphia.' They weren't all from Philadelphia. Philadelphia was a symbol. Like a lot of people, I resented that."

But now, it seems, Philadelphia has successfully expanded that symbol to include the possibility of redemption.

"I don't mean to paint a rosy picture, but I think it is pretty remarkable that the community has come as far as it has," Mitchell says. "It didn't come from outside -- it came from within the community to retry Killen. How many places that have this kind of stigma have taken the steps Philadelphia has taken, especially without outside interference?"

Both Dearman and Mitchell credit former Mississippi Secretary of State Dick Molpus with galvanizing the community with a speech he gave at the 40th anniversary of the slayings. "That really kind of caused a reopening," Dearman says. "The dynamic was, 'You know the world is going to be looking at us anyway. How are we going to deal with it?' That kind of began the discussion. I think it was important that he used the word 'we' -- 'if we don't come forward, then we're just as guilty.'"

For some, such intense feelings of guilt were passed on like a family heirloom. Steve (not his real name) is a 34-year-old Philadephia native who now lives in New Orleans. He wasn't even alive when the murders took place, but he remembers the sense of shame that overshadowed the tiny community.

"We had a family friend with several hundred acres of land on his property, and at the time of the killings he was having a pond built somewhere on the lot .... I guess some other folks knew about it, because the bodies were found there," he says. "We knew in our hearts he didn't know. But I've never really sat down and talked about it in depth. After so many years, it still kind of creeps me out. It still has such an effect. My parents and grandparents felt more like they needed to make apologies than I did, or do. But I can remember when we would go on drives up to the mountains and my grandma telling me to cut it out when I waved at people we passed by -- you know, we're from the South, we wave at everybody -- and she would say, 'Get down! They're going to see our Neshoba County plates!'"

It's hard to say what Killen's conviction will mean for the next generation of Neshoba County residents. A month before the trial was scheduled to begin, three local teenage boys were holding an impromptu band rehearsal in the Main Street music store across from the courthouse. With the price tags still dangling from their guitars, they launched into a well-practiced Christian rock ballad.

"We know all about it," said one 15-year-old. "We had to study the summer of '64 in school -- 'The bloodiest summer not in war time.'" He said the phrase as if by rote. When asked whether race relations were an issue today, the three offered different answers. "Well, they're both good and bad," said a 16-year-old. Apparently there had been a few recent incidences over the use of certain racial epithets, and over interracial dating. "The Bible says it's not supposed to be like that ..." offered the third boy, also 16.

But when one of them brought up a beautiful brown-skinned Brazilian girl in their class who loves to ride 4-wheelers, they all agreed that some lessons are best left open to interpretation.

"Forty years is a long time, but it's better that it evolved this way, from within," says Dearman. "We don't want young people to forget about it. We want them to know the history."

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