Edgar Ray Killen died in a Mississippi penitentiary earlier this month at the age of 92. A person’s passing is never something to celebrate. Mr. Killen’s death is no different, but it is a time to reflect on the link between two intimately connected eras in our nation’s history.
On June 21st, 1964, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were in the Philadelphia, Mississippi area to register voters as part of the Freedom Summer — a voter registration drive organized by a coalition of civil rights organizations, including the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) and Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). They joined thousands of African-American Mississippians and white, black and Hispanic volunteers from around the country. In the face of systematic violence, meant to intimidate and expel them from the state, Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner were fighting to enfranchise African-American citizens by helping them take part in our most fundamental political processes: voting.
That night, the three men were pulled over and temporarily jailed on a trumped up speeding charge. When they were released around 10 p.m., they were followed by two cars full of Klan members and the local sheriff organized by Mr. Killen, a preacher. They were forced from their car, shot to death, and buried beneath a dam. In the 44 days before their bodies were found by FBI agents, the Governor of Mississippi called their disappearance a “hoax,” and segregationist Senator Jim Eastland called it a “publicity stunt.” They were found by the FBI because state lawmen and prosecutors refused to investigate, even after they were found.
Mr. Killen was one of 18 people tried in federal court for the crimes in 1967. He was acquitted by a hung jury, and returned to his life for 41 years. Investigative reporting revived the case in 1998, and in 2005, he was convicted not on the original murder charges, but three counts of manslaughter by a jury in the Mississippi County the senseless murders originally took place in.
As we celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day last week, I am reminded of some of his finest words. “Let no man pull you so low as to hate him.” I believe hatred is the greatest enemy of the freedom, culture and values. And like that era, we are being tested. Today, it is the vile and vulgar words uttered by Donald Trump while talking about Africa, Haiti and El Salvador. Everything we understand about racial injustice, systemic bias, and unequal protections under the law are being exacerbated by the current occupier of the White House. It would be easy to meet hate with hate. But remember, hate took the life Dr. King and allowed the domestic terrorism orchestrated by Mr. Killen.
In the face of hatred, we must act and educate. We must continue the work of the many souls that have been its victims, and fight on as they did. We must fight in their memory. We must fight for our future.