Thursday, June 16, 2005

History Being Made

We're in Philadelphia, Mississippi, to observe the trial of Edgar Ray Killen, an 80 year old Klansman, on trial for murder for his part in a conspiracy that saw three civil rights activists kidnapped, beaten, and executed, in 1964.

The world's media are here, 221 affiliated journalists. While they competed in a lottery for courthouse seats, we lined up with the general public.

It was a dramatic day in court. After the defence had motions to dismiss denied, the prosecution called its first witness, Rita Schwerner Bender, the widow of Michael 'Mickey' Schwerner, one of the three men who was murdered.

Rita Schwerner Bender's moving testimony transported us back to 1964, a time of intimidation and violence in the Deep South. The atmosphere in the courtroom was charged, with some people sobbing openly throughout. Rita and Mickey had moved to Mississippi from New York, to begin a project in Meridian that supplemented the meagre selection of books that were available in the blacks only library. They lived with Afro-American families, moving on whenever the threat level became too high.

Mickey and another activist spoke at the Mt Zion church, Philadelphia. They were in dialogue about setting up another book project and training people to register black voters in Mississippi. Shortly after they spoke, the Ku Klux Klan gave severe beatings to several elders of the Mt Zion congregation. They burned down the church.

Mickey came back to investigate and offer support to the church. He was accompanied by fellow activists, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman. They were arrested on a trumped-up charge in Philadelphia. On their release they were ambushed, driven away, beaten, and shot. A few days later their blue station wagon was found, burned out in a swamp. 44 days later the FBI found their bodies in an earthen dam.

Rita Schwerner Bender's left the stand, her head held high, her emotions still held in check. She had made a difficult journey back to Philadelphia and testified with great dignity. In a TV movie, I'm sure people would've applauded her from the stand.

For his part, Edgar Killen sat in court until just before Rita's testimony. His defence team then requested he see a nurse and he was led out. He left court on a stretcher, bound for the ICU. His condition will be assessed tomorrow and, if given the all clear, the trial will resume.

Hannah and myself were interviewed by a local paper and I will post a link when that story is published, it will likely be today.

*UPDATE*

Here's what the Meridian Star ran about myself and Hannah.

Hannah Kennedy and her husband, Jason, drove to Philadelphia from Memphis to watch the Edgar Ray Killen trial at the Neshoba County courthouse. Hannah Kennedy is a second-year law student at the University of Memphis and said she wants to see legal history in the making.

The couple agreed that being inside the courthouse makes it easier to imagine what it may have been like during Killen's 1967 federal trial. Hannah Kennedy has family ties in Northeast Mississippi and Jason is a native of Dublin, Ireland. (I know, I know, I'm not a native of Dublin).

4 Comments:

Blogger Jim said...

I'm not following this as closely as you, but I saw that Mr. Killen was in a Father's Day celebration with his family. Will the trial resume?

11:24 AM  
Blogger kingfelix said...

Jim, the trial has concluded, Mr Killen's health problems having subsided. We are now watching Court TV, waiting on closing arguments and then the jury deliberation.

It was a good trip to see this in the flesh and sample the atmosphere, I will never forget being in that courtroom.

11:29 AM  
Blogger Jim said...

Guilty, baby!

12:01 PM  
Blogger kingfelix said...

Yup, now for the sentencing. As a prior felon, he receives at least 1 year for each count of manslaughter.

I was kind of sad not more people commented on this blog post. I'm not an American, but it sure seemed to have plenty of significance. The courthouse itself was also not fabulously attended. Oh well, I got to see Killen on hopefully one of his very last days of freedom, and I'm glad of that.

1:19 PM  

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