Photograph by Todd Hido / Edge Reps
No Twang of Conscience Whatever
By Patsy Sims
Sometimes I wonder what people thought when they saw Preacher Edgar Ray Killen and me walking up to the Gulf station in search of a mechanic to haul his stalled Buick from outside my motel door. There he was in his oversized brown suit and a Stetson hat that came down low on his forehead, his tie held by a WALLACE tie clip. I was young and blonde with hair past my shoulders, or maybe it was pulled back in a ponytail—I don’t remember from the distance of almost forty years.
It was Meridian, Mississippi, the summer of 1976. Preacher Killen was nine years past his federal conspiracy trial in the 1964 murders of three civil rights workers in nearby Philadelphia, twelve years from the actual murders, and in 1976 that seemed like a long time, though I realize now it wasn’t and that choosing to interview him in my motel room was not the smartest thing I have ever done.
The viciousness behind the murders was of a magnitude that to utter the words “murders of the three civil rights workers,” even the names Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney, was sufficient for most people to summon the gruesome details of the trio’s disappearance and the discovery forty-four days later of their decomposing bodies on the farm of one of the town’s wealthier residents. They were of a magnitude, too, that J. Edgar Hoover opened a field office in Jackson, Mississippi, to investigate the murders and two hundred other unsolved cases of racial violence—all suspected to be the work of a new, particularly virulent Klan known as the White Knights of Mississippi.
The three workers—Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney—were engaged in a massive drive to register black voters and had that Sunday, June 21, 1964, driven the forty miles from Meridian to examine the ruins of a burned-out black church that was to have been used as a training school. Chaney was black and a Meridian native; Schwerner and Goodman were Jewish and from New York, and in that charged climate of 1964 they were not welcome in Mississippi, or in most of the South. All three worked with the Congress of Racial Equality. All three were in their early twenties, “hardly more than boys,” the government prosecutor would say at the eventual trial of Killen and seventeen other men.
The trio’s smoldering Ford station wagon was recovered two days after their disappearance, but the search for bodies stretched into weeks, the weeks into a month, with the Mississippi River giving up the corpses of two black males who in some real or imagined way had dared cross the color line—but not the bodies of the three voting-rights workers.
From the outset the FBI suspected Neshoba County sheriff Lawrence A. Rainey and his twenty-seven-year-old deputy Cecil Ray Price after it was learned the deputy had arrested the three for speeding and held them in the county jail for almost seven hours. Both Rainey and Price held a certain popularity in the community due to their willingness to roughen up blacks, and when Price insisted he had escorted the men to the outskirts of town and immediately returned to the jail, it was difficult to prove otherwise in a community that largely refused to talk out of sympathy or fear.
Given the number of victims, the FBI also suspected it was dealing with more than Rainey and Price, and the name Edgar Ray Killen soon surfaced. Killen was a marginal figure in the community, given to wearing overalls and to lacing his remarks with Scripture and racial theory, and Philadelphia residents may or may not have been surprised when four months later he turned up among the eighteen men—Rainey, Price, and Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers, among them—charged with conspiring to deprive the three workers of their civil rights, a Reconstruction-era statute the Justice Department resorted to after it became apparent the state would not be filing murder charges.
Neither the defendants nor a good many Mississippians seemed to take the charges seriously, and over the next three years the case was thrown in and out of court until the U.S. Supreme Court finally cleared the way for a trial. The night Killen and I talked, he liked to say it was a murder trial, and in some ways it was, or as close to a murder trial as you were apt to get in the 1960s South when few juries were willing to prosecute a white person for any crime against a black man, much less the crime of murder.
Federal prosecutor John Doar drew largely upon confessions and the testimony of paid informers to piece together a conspiracy that he said began shortly after Michael Schwerner and his wife, Rita, arrived in Meridian five months before the murders. Of all the young civil rights workers who streamed into the state that summer, Schwerner (called “Goatee” by the Klan) was the most despised for his role in boycotting white businesses and his tireless pursuit of eligible black voters. And so it was Schwerner, Doar told the court, who was the Klan’s intended victim; Chaney and Goodman (who had arrived the night before) became victims merely because they were with him. Doar singled out Sam Bowers as the one who approved Schwerner’s “elimination,” but it was Edgar Ray Killen, he said, who devised the elaborate plan to abduct, shoot, and bury the three so far under a dam on Olen Burrage’s farm they would never be seen or heard from again.
The case was heard in the Meridian courtroom of Federal District Judge William Harold Cox, whose own racial leanings were legendary and who was expected to find a way to dismiss the case, and so the outcome no doubt took many people by surprise. Bowers, Price, and five more defendants were found guilty, their sentences ranging from three to ten years. (Said Judge Cox of the sentences: “They killed one nigger, one Jew, and a white man—I gave them all what I thought they deserved.”) Seven others were acquitted.
For Killen, the trial ended in a hung jury (as it did for two others) after a holdout juror refused to convict a preacher, but even on that August 1976 evening when he came to my motel it was common knowledge the FBI still considered him the man who had organized the killing party.
But then that summer was one when I did not always exercise the best judgment as I crisscrossed the back roads of the South in search of Klansmen for a book I was writing. By the time I reached Mississippi I had traveled alone with veteran Klan leader Robert Shelton in his carpeted Executive van, interviewed an unsteady Kentuckian in a locked room with a .38 on the table between us, listened to a former Texas Grand Dragon lay out the particulars of a CIA plot to assassinate Panamanian General Omar Torrijos with a car bomb (the Grand Dragon was to have been the hit man), all the while knowing such a device had killed reporter Don Bolles three weeks earlier as he pursued a newspaper series about the Mafia.
Somehow I had in mind that we were farther removed from the 1960s and the murders of the three workers and of Medgar Evers and Vernon Dahmer and Emmett Till and the passions that fueled the civil rights violence, and that racial views had changed, though I should have known better. I was born and raised in the South and had lived there until three years earlier, when I took a job in another Philadelphia up north, and there were signs to the contrary all about.
I was deeply curious about the men and women willing to wear the ridiculous-looking hoods and robes and call themselves “Kludds” and “Kleagles” and “Klexters.” I wanted to know how they could commit the brutalities they had been accused of. I had wondered that from the time I discovered a picture postcard of fifty or so robed, hooded men parading down Main Street in Beaumont, Texas, where my parents and I lived until I was eleven. Over the years the browning photograph had captured my imagination, though it was a long time before I put the name Ku Klux Klan with it or fully understood what the men stood for or did—an awakening that came only in the Sixties when violence spread like kudzu across the Southern countryside and Alabama and Mississippi became frightening in the same mysterious way that darkness frightens a child.
By that summer of 1976 Sam Bowers himself had been convicted in the conspiracy case of the three civil rights workers, tried and acquitted in the 1966 firebombing death of Hattiesburg NAACP leader Vernon Dahmer, and suspected of issuing orders that resulted in another three hundred acts of racial violence: beatings, bombings, burnings, shootings, cold-blooded murder. Bowers had helped organize the Knights in late 1963, but it was the following spring when they gained momentum as Mississippi braced for an influx of young civil rights workers determined to break through the registration barriers that had resulted in only 24,000 of the state’s 400,000 blacks of voting age being on the rolls. Between February and June of 1964 the Knights’ numbers had swelled from three hundred to somewhere between two thousand and ten thousand, depending on your source. But finding one of those members who would talk to me proved the biggest challenge I faced in writing the book.
After fifteen years as a journalist, my contacts were extensive, and yet when I telephoned men identified by reliable sources as members of the White Knights, they would insist they had never belonged to the Klan. The man described by three people as the interim leader while Sam Bowers served his six years in a federal prison insisted there was some mistake.
“I’m not a member of any of them, but if I was it would be the White Knights,” he said when I reached him by phone. “They’re the only real Klan. I wouldn’t give you a dime for any of the other groups.”
I thanked him and was about to hang up when he stopped me. “Ma’am,” he said, “I’d say if a man’s a good Klansman you won’t know it.”
I had expected to be turned down by Bowers, who was known to be reclusive and had never granted an interview. But the others puzzled me, especially after an unorthodox Baptist minister who described himself as “tight” with the White Knights insisted they were back in business within two days of Bowers’s recent release from prison. By this time, I had interviewed the Mississippi leaders of two other Klan factions. I had even interviewed the man who helped Bowers form the White Knights before defecting to the United Klans of America and another who had renounced the Knights after landing in prison for attempting to bomb the Meridian home of a Jewish business leader. But when it came to reaching an active member of the White Knights, I drew a blank—except for the man known as Preacher Killen.
When I called Edgar Ray Killen, he was apologetic. He really would like to talk to me, but he didn’t know when he might have time. In addition to pastoring a Baptist church the fourth Sunday of every month, he operated a sawmill and by night worked as a private investigator, and at the moment, he said, he was tied up on a murder case. Every time I was in the area I would call, and every time I received a variation on the answer—never the flat “no” the others gave. I could tell Killen was curious about me, that part of him wanted to bite, and so I continued to call any time I was near Mississippi. Finally, when I was in Alabama, on my way back East, I decided to make one last call. This time he said he might be able to see me the next night. I high-tailed it back to Meridian.
The next night he failed to show up or to call, but when I telephoned early the next morning he assured me he was almost positive he could make it that evening. It was around 6:30 p.m. when the motel desk clerk called to say a man was in the lobby to see me, and without a second thought I asked her to direct him to my room. The Holiday Inn was one of those sprawling, garden-type affairs, and my room was situated out back, at its outer reaches, a good distance from the lobby and the road and any kind of help, and it briefly registered that the man suspected of orchestrating the darkest of civil rights crimes was on his way to my room.
I must have seen old photographs of Killen from the 1967 trial, but I don’t really recall knowing what he looked like. Somehow I expected a large, lumbering man—the stereotypical redneck. Instead I opened the door to a slight man who looked almost comical in his cowboy hat and baggy suit. In the notes I typed up later that night I described him as looking like someone who had just stepped off a Greyhound bus. He was fifty-one at the time, his brown hair thinning, but I considered that twelve years earlier, on the night of the murders, he must have made a more menacing impression with his hawkish face and hook nose.
He was all Southern politeness as he removed his hat and eased into an armchair. He talked in a soft drawl, his statements often ending with question marks, his I’s wide, and his syllables sometimes swallowed. He was relaxed, as though it were a friendly visit, even when I ventured from his family background to questions of racism, then to the events of June 21, 1964. Sometimes when I asked a question he would remove his glasses and rub his eyes or bite his already nubby fingernails like he was straining to remember. His simplest, most innocent-sounding statements often contradicted one another, and he chuckled, “I talk two ways.”
He was the oldest of eight children, in a close-knit family that continued to live within ten miles of one another—five brothers, two sisters, his elderly parents, most of them clustered along a horseshoe road off Highway 19, twelve miles south of Philadelphia and not far from the spot on Rock Cut Road where the three workers were murdered. He would be married thirty-two years come that September, he said, but they had no children. His family had logged, milled, and farmed at least as far back as his grandparents, and when I asked if his people had been of low or medium income, he chuckled, “Welllll, we knew a little about both.”
His Grandfather Hitt had once cultivated a considerable parcel of land that disappeared with the Depression and the old man’s advancing age. Killen’s own father had worked on a road crew and for the railroad before taking up farming and the timber business, which generally meant cutting and hauling and selling logs. For much of Edgar Ray’s childhood the family lived on part of the grandfather’s property in a house without lights or running water, and with a wood stove for cooking. He said he worked all the way through school: farmed, pulped wood, logged, which left little time for outside activities. He graduated from high school with passing grades (he could, he insisted, have made A’s with a little effort) and briefly studied agriculture at a nearby junior college until he quit at nineteen to buy a sawmill. He had been preaching since his early twenties, most of those years at Zion Baptist Church.
It was on the old Hitt property that Killen remembered first encountering blacks, the children of a family who worked for his uncles. He and his siblings used to play with them. “When Daddy would carry mother to the doctor, it was a day’s business,” he recalled with a tinge of what sounded like nostalgia, “and I can remember going to the colored—and to be frank we called them ‘niggers,’ and they didn’t resent it—but we would go as small children and I can remember the old mammy cooking and feeding us at the kitchen table with her kids and we didn’t know any difference and they didn’t resent it. We thought a lot of those nigger children, and they did us, but that didn’t last too many years.”
Killen wasn’t sure what happened, whether the farm mechanized or the black children simply married or moved or drifted away, but, he assured me, there had never been any trouble, any racial problems. Killen insisted he had worked among blacks and accepted them as individuals—he didn’t hateanyone because of the color of his skin. He blamed the racial turmoil on our ancestors—especially the Northerners—for bringing slaves to this country in the first place. That, he reiterated, was the real wrong. The reason Northerners turned against slavery, he said, was because the slaves were not educated to the point where they were capable of doing anything beyond fieldwork. The thing he held against black people was that they were being used—namely by the Communists, and Edgar Ray Killen was bitterly, bitterly opposed to Communism, which, he acknowledged, immediately branded him as “a real radical.”
“I’m a firm believer that Joe McCarthy was possibly right,” he said, adding the disclaimer that he and Joe McCarthy weren’t friends and, in fact, weren’t even acquainted, but they were both against Communism. Killen insisted he didn’t consider someone a Communist just because their racial views differed. Nevertheless, he said, Martin Luther King was a known Communist. Martin Luther King’s speechwriter was a known Communist. The man who implicated Killen in the murders was a known Communist. The people who took to the streets against the Klan were known Communists. And so on.
“I did a lot of research at that time, and if you could look at the files, J. Edgar Hoover had a file that Mr. Schwerner was an underground, active agent for the Communist Party,” he said, taking care to stress the words underground and active. “So was Mr. Goodman. He was young, but he was recruited and he was trained, and they have never told—they were recruiting young blacks throughout the South, especially and particularly Mississippi at that time.”
Goodman had arrived in Mississippi little more than twenty-four hours before he was murdered, but Killen didn’t seem to know that and neither did I, so I simply asked, “For the Communist Party?”
“Welllll,” he hesitated, drawing out the word, “they wasn’t using the word, I don’t think, but they were recruiting ’em and making ’em sign a card at these meetings that they would rape a white woman once a week throughout the hot summer of nineteen-sixty-four.” He paused, maybe to let that sink in, maybe to see how I would react before he resumed in a more strident tone than he had used up to that point. “Because never before have I told, but I saw some of the cards.”
The boldness of that statement startled me and it was almost by reflex that I said, “You did?” and he assured me, “Yes, ma’am,” and gave one of his nervous chuckles. “We had to burn ’em—and the FBI did, but they’ll deny it. We obtained those even after the arrests, but they would’ve used ’em and said we got ’em off of them. We didn’t get ’em off of them—I never saw Schwerner or Goodman, but I did talk to some people that they knew and I talked to some that they got to sign the cards.”
During the trial, Killen’s lawyer—at his client’s insistence—stunned the court by raising the alleged rape campaign in his cross-examination of a witness. The judge strongly rebuked both Killen and the attorney, but as Killen would smugly tell right-wing attorney Richard Barrett in a 2004 interview, “the point got made.” In other words, the question might have been struck from the record, but the seed had been planted in the jurors’ minds, and looking back, I wonder if that was Killen’s intent the night we spoke, that the claim might make its way into my book. Killen attributed his claims to his own legwork and to access to well-placed sources within the state and federal governments, at one point alluding to special entrée to former governor Ross Barnett. Whether Killen had such high-level connections, and whether he actually believed the allegations he made, I can’t say, but on that night he seemed at ease with such notions as black church burnings being the work of outsiders—namely civil rights leaders—and not the Ku Klux Klan. Mt. Zion Methodist Church, the church the three workers had gone to inspect on the day they were abducted, was only the first of almost two dozen black houses of worship that went up in flames that summer of 1964. Ten more were torched the following year.
During the 1967 trial, a White Knight-turned-paid-informer described the June 16 meeting where Killen organized the party of Klansmen who severely beat Mt. Zion members and later returned to firebomb the church—all in an attempt to lure Michael Schwerner to Neshoba County. When I narrowed the discussion to that particular incident, however, Killen insisted he hadn’t even known where the church was located until after the fire.
His claim of not going along on that attack could well be true, though that did not necessarily absolve him of the crime. White Knights’ policy (and that of most Klan organizations) dictated that neither the organizer of a particular operation nor a Klan officer was to participate in the actual undertaking, a procedure Killen was said to have again followed on the night of the three murders. The practice enabled Klan leaders to be telling the truth on a technical level when they proclaimed their innocence, and whether or not this was the case with Killen, I don’t know. I know only that still another trial witness claimed to have firsthand knowledge of Killen’s involvement, but when I repeated the question he again denied knowing what had happened.
“I never did,” he insisted, “I never advocated it. If I had known, had I been in the Klan and the Klan planned to burn a colored church, if it was in my power I would have stopped it.”
The phrase “had I been in the Klan” stopped me. At the 1967 trial three witnesses testified that they had been sworn into the White Knights by Edgar Ray Killen and that he had played a pivotal role in the murders, and in our own telephone conversations I had repeatedly said I wanted to interview Klansmen, all of which made me wonder why he would agree to meet with me if he had not, in fact, joined, but even when I tried putting the question directly, Killen steadfastly denied ever being a member.
“The FBI paid informers to say so,” he said. “See, they had a boy, the assistant chief of police, he came on the stand as one of the last witnesses they put on, and he said he went with me to meetings and he said the Klan was there, you know, when I planned to get these three.”
The reference was to Carlton Wallace Miller, a sergeant on the Meridian police force and a lifelong friend and former schoolmate of Killen who told the court he had been recruited into the White Knights by Killen, that he had attended meetings presided over by Killen, that Killen told him the Mt. Zion firebombing was staged to lure Michael Schwerner to Neshoba County—told him, too, that the three civil rights workers had been shot and buried fifteen feet under a dam being constructed on Olen Burrage’s land. He also testified that Killen was the Knights’ Kleagle (Klan vocabulary for organizer) for Neshoba County. Miller’s testimony no doubt came as a surprise to Killen, who had buried two of Miller’s children and officiated at his second marriage, and who, Miller said, was distantly related. Killen, however, insisted it was Carlton Wallace Miller who had tried to recruit him into the United Klans of America and that Miller didn’t know what he was talking about.
Killen did acknowledge belonging to a Klan front-group known as Americans for the Preservation of the White Race. He acknowledged, too, that he was sympathetic to the Klan’s beliefs, that he thought a lot of the United Klans’ Robert Shelton (though he had met Shelton only once), and that he had been acquainted with members of the White Knights, including Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers. In a 1999 interview with the Jackson Clarion-Ledger’s Jerry Mitchell and another in 2005 with television station WJTV, Killen vowed he had never met Bowers before the trial and, in fact, barely knew him, but on the night we spoke he told a different story.
“Sam I knew, let me see how many months.” He stopped and studied the ceiling, and I wasn’t sure if he was having trouble remembering or if he was trying to get his story straight. “I can’t remember how I met Sam. I possibly met him—” Again he hesitated. “I knew Sam before they arrested him on this,” he said finally. “See, he was one of the last ones to be arrested on this Philadelphia case, and they spent an awful lot of money to get false testimony on Sam Bowers. To the best of my knowledge Sam Bowers wouldn’t have been any more in the conspiracy or to have done the deed than you are as of this moment.”
Killen’s avowal of Bowers’s innocence took on a certain irony in 2004 when Bowers confirmed Killen’s central role in the murders during an interview with state authorities. Bowers had made veiled allusions to Killen’s involvement, on several occasions expressing satisfaction at having fooled the judge and the jury and everybody else by enabling the main instigator to leave the courtroom a free man even though it had meant prison time for Bowers himself. “The case has never really been solved in the sense that Watergate has been solved,” he said in a series of secret interviews with a state archivist. “So, here is a bunch of semiliterate rednecks in the state of Mississippi really putting on a better show against imperial authority than Richard Nixon and the Republican Party did in Watergate.” The Clarion-Ledger somehow managed to obtain copies of the interviews, which were to have remained sealed until Bowers’s death, and it was after the story broke that Bowers agreed to name names from the prison cell where he was finally serving a life sentence for murdering Vernon Dahmer.
But on the night Killen and I met, those revelations were almost thirty years away, and nobody could have imagined that Sam Bowers would be the one to finally talk—least of all Edgar Ray Killen. As the evening progressed he was unflagging in his support of Bowers, and while he couldn’t remember precisely how or when the two met, he seemed to take pride in the fact that he was probably the one who had introduced Bowers to the Neshoba County defendants.
I asked when the FBI first approached him and he realized he was a suspect, and after almost forty years I can still remember the quietness of the room as he pressed his fingertips together to form a steeple and allowed his eyes to circle the ceiling. “Some time in July,” he finally answered. “The first time they approached me was there in Philadelphia, I well remember. They asked me if I would go out to the motel, to their headquarters with them. I think they said, ‘Will you go with us, with the FBI?’ They didn’t identify themselves, really, but he did say, ‘I’m an FBI agent and would you go with me out to the headquarters and take a polygraph test?’ and, of course, my immediate response was, I said, ‘No, sir, I would not’—I mean what business did I have going with him?
“They were desperate,” he said, emphasizing the word. “The record says they wrapped the case up—they got some convictions, but they probably have people that knew more than anyone that went to prison that they never questioned.” His tone took on an arrogant edge. “They never got as close to that case as they thought they did.”
I asked Killen if he knew who committed the murders, and if he thought it was the men who went to prison, and he said he didn’t. I asked, too, if he thought the Klan had been responsible, and he said he wasn’t sure. “I don’t even know that the ones who went to prison could give the names for certain,” he said. “Of course, in the courts John Doar said I was the man with the plan.” That information, he said, had been bought and paid for.
Killen said he would not be exaggerating to say the FBI came to see him a thousand times before the agents finally made their arrests. They drove back and forth past his house at all hours, and while no one actually laid a finger on him, the agents threatened him, said they would beat the hell out of him (“not one time, but a lot of times”), and called him many foul names he said he wouldn’t want to repeat to a lady—a description of the FBI’s aggressiveness that is probably not too much of an overstatement. The disappearance of Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney had signaled the beginning of a four-year struggle between the FBI and the Klan—a fight that was not a clean one, not even on the part of the FBI. On its side, the Klan fought back with everything from rattlesnakes to bullets.
Killen and the other defendants received a level of support that today seems inconceivable. Many people in the community refused to cooperate with the FBI. He and the other defendants became heroes, he said proudly, invited to speak throughout Mississippi and the South at strip malls and community centers, and on the street strangers often would approach them to shake hands and offer a word of support. The charges against Killen were eventually dismissed after a single juror refused to find a preacher guilty, and in the long legal maneuvers he had never spent a day in jail, a point that gave him immense satisfaction.
“It will break their hearts,” he said, “they did not get to lock me up.”
I asked if he had ever been arrested on other charges, and Killen said quite convincingly that he hadn’t, which turned out to be untrue. In fact, he had been out of prison less than a year after serving five months for threatening to kill a man who spotted Killen and a woman (who was not his wife) coming out of a motel room and informed the woman’s husband. That, however, is a piece of information I would not know about until recently, which probably allowed me to pass almost four hours alone with Killen in a motel room of my own and to ask him, point-blank, if he had ever killed anybody.
I am not sure what prompted me to ask the question, and I wonder now if, under the same circumstances, I would have the nerve to ask it today. I wonder, too, if it caught Killen by surprise, if he had at all expected such a question from the little blonde with the soft Southern accent. But it was near the end of the evening, and by that point I was no doubt feeling cockier and asked first if he had ever done anything he regretted.
The thumbs stopped, and for a moment he considered the question. “If you are talking about anything about which I was accused, no, really not,” he answered finally. “Never done anything they would say that I have done, that I would have regrets, would lose any sleep, have any nervous reactions—no, ma’am, no twang of conscience whatever.”
And then I asked the question. There was no hesitation, no quiver to my voice. I simply asked it: “Have you ever killed anybody?”
I wish I could remember the expression on his face, whether it registered any surprise, but I have only his calm, even, “No, ma’am.”
“Would you ever?”
He gave a slight hesitation, then answered, “I couldn’t imagine that offhand,” which, as I write this, strikes me as a curiously uncertain answer for a man who had spent the better part of an evening proclaiming his innocence, who, when I asked, claimed not to condone any of the civil rights movement violence, though this too came not as a strong disavowal.
“How do you feel now about the three guys getting killed?” I asked. “Do you think they had it coming?”
Killen didn’t answer immediately. His thumbs stopped, and then he looked me squarely in the eye. “I have a lot more feeling about the boys we lost in Vietnam fighting the same characters as the two white boys,” he said in the same unfettered drawl. “I have a feeling for any human being—” He stopped and seemed suddenly a little flustered and unsure of how to proceed. “I don’t exactly know how to answer you because I don’t know exactly if I really understand the question. In other words, if you are saying ‘Would you have planned it,’ well, I didn’t and I wouldn’t. After knowing the things I know today, had I done it, I wouldn’t have any regrets.”
It was almost eleven when Preacher Killen put on the gray Stetson and headed for the door. I watched as he slipped behind the wheel of his faded green Buick and turned the key, and waited to hear the engine crank. Instead it gave off a low grumble so Killen tried again, and again the car refused to start. Again and again he would turn the key and pump the gas, but there was only the sick, grinding noise. It was then that we took our walk to the Gulf station next door where the mechanic was off and the attendant knew of no others still on duty at that hour. At the motel office, the desk clerk, too, was of no help so we returned to the Buick.
My mind raced as the car refused to start, and it was here that I began to understand that inviting Edgar Ray Killen to my motel had not been a good idea. It was almost midnight, and I began to experience a steady, building panic as I pondered what I would do with Preacher Killen. I had never allowed fear to interfere with an assignment, yet I could not bring myself to offer him a ride, to travel together on that same stretch of road that Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney had taken. Finally he telephoned a friend and a tow truck arrived to haul him and the car away.
There is nothing in my notes from that August evening to indicate fear, nor is it in my voice, and I marvel at the coolness with which I asked Killen if he had ever killed anybody and how he managed to respond in such a soft, even manner. I remember thinking his voice was softer than I would have expected of someone accused of such a crime. And that thought comes back to me now as I listen to the tapes and review court transcripts I had no access to forty years ago, for it is in the details, when you slow down the story, that the full horror of what happened that June night hits you and you wonder about the twist of the heart and mind it took to conceive such an evil plan—the plan prosecutor John Doar said was the work of Edgar Ray Killen.
Schwerner was doomed almost from the late January day he and his wife, Rita, arrived in Meridian to operate a black community center and to advance voter registration. The telephone threats began within a month. In early 1964 the Knights’ growth in the area had been extraordinary, due in large part to the efforts of Bowers and his Neshoba County organizer, Edgar Ray Killen, who by then was making frequent trips down Highway 19 to drum up members in neighboring Lauderdale County. For him and Frank Herndon, Exalted Cyclops of the Lauderdale Klavern, Schwerner was a Klan recruiter’s dream, and the two were said to have driven prospective members through the black section of town on more than one occasion so they could see him and Rita fraternizing with blacks, and so they would know what Schwerner looked like when the time was right.
Three former Knights who took the stand at the 1967 trial described how after Killen administered the oath he would lay out the Klan’s mission: tell what a fine organization it was, how it stood for Christianity and the Constitution and the preservation of the white race. This was “no Boy Scout group,” he was said to have impressed upon the new initiates. It was an organization of action and they were all there to do “business.” The nature of that “business,” he said, could take the form of, among other things, cross burnings, telephone threats, whippings, beatings, and, on occasion, “elimination.” “Projects” undertaken by the Klan had to be approved by the organization—no individual was to act on his own. The mechanism for that approval varied with the nature of the “action”: more routine matters like cross burnings and beatings could be voted on by the local Klavern and, if approved, carried out by volunteers; eliminations were at the sole discretion of the “state organization”—namely Sam Bowers.
The campaign by the Lauderdale Klavern to do away with Michael Schwerner began in April, possibly earlier. At an early April meeting at the Cash Salvage Store in Meridian, a member called for a vote to eliminate “Goatee,” as the Klan already was referring to the bearded Schwerner. The three Klan witnesses testified that Killen informed the group such a plan had already been approved by the state organization and that it would be handled by another Klavern. But as time passed and Schwerner went untouched, the Lauderdale County Klansmen grew increasingly frustrated and on at least one occasion attempted to kill Schwerner themselves, a plan that was foiled when Rita Schwerner refused to let a Klansman posing as a vacuum cleaner salesman into the house. The matter was again raised at a May meeting, and Killen assured the men Schwerner would be dealt with by another Klavern, and that Klavern, given the events of June 21, 1964, was apparently Killen’s own Neshoba County group.
The challenge Killen and the Neshoba Klansmen faced was finding a way to get Mickey Schwerner to the Philadelphia area, and after Schwerner spoke on Memorial Day at Mt. Zion Methodist Church in the nearby Longdale community, the White Knights began to see the possibilities the black church might hold for attracting him to Neshoba County, and local law enforcement seemed to step up its patrols. In mid-June Cecil Price stopped a car bearing Arkansas license plates on a rural road near the church but let the occupants go after establishing they were former residents who had returned for a visit. “You’re welcome in Neshoba,” he told the passengers. “We just don’t want any of that civil rights stuff around here.”
Two days later, shortly after Killen opened a meeting of seventy-five Neshoba and Lauderdale County Klansmen at an abandoned gym near the edge of town, Ethel Glen “Hop” Barnett arrived with news of a gathering at the church. Hop Barnett was the former Neshoba County sheriff, a post he would be re-elected to the next year in spite of his indictment in the murders. He told the group the meeting must be important because the church was heavily guarded, and from that someone suggested civil rights workers were probably there, maybe even Goatee.
Killen asked if the Klan members wanted to do something, and a group of Neshoba and Lauderdale men—all of them armed, all ready for satisfaction—headed for the church. Forty-five minutes later they returned, the Lauderdale men—blood still on the knuckles of one—boasting of how they had beaten the black church members who exited in their particular direction. There had been no sign of Mickey Schwerner, no white people at all in the crowd that filed out of the church, but for the Lauderdale contingent it hadn’t mattered, and they were quick to criticize the Neshoba faction for not roughing up the blacks who came out their way. The Neshoba men left the meeting with bruised egos, and after a night of drinking apparently saw the value in setting fire to the church, and thus the trap was finally set.
Word of the church burning reached Schwerner in Oxford, Ohio, where he, Goodman, and Chaney were attending a training session for the Mississippi volunteers. The morning after their return, the three made the drive to Longdale to inspect the ruins, and were heading back to Meridian when Cecil Price spotted their 1963 blue Ford station wagon. The Congress of Racial Equality–owned vehicle was familiar to Price and other law enforcement officers in that part of Mississippi (the tag number and description had been widely circulated by the Klan and the White Citizens’ Council), and so Price gave chase. The young deputy may not have realized initially he had Schwerner in his sights, but there is little doubt he knew the car carried civil rights workers when he radioed two nearby state patrolmen for help.
By four o’clock that afternoon, the three civil rights workers had been booked (Chaney for speeding, Schwerner and Goodman for “investigation” into the Mt. Zion Church fire) at the Neshoba County jail, where they would remain for almost seven hours, where they would be denied the customary one telephone call, where they would not be permitted to pay a fine or post bond, where at five-thirty the jailer would tell a worried caller from the Meridian community center the three were not there, that they had never been there.
News of Schwerner’s arrest was quickly relayed to Killen and the Neshoba Klansmen, and the final plans—the ones John Doar talked about at the trial—were put into place: the three would be held until Killen could assemble a killing party; they would be released under the cloak of darkness and stopped by a state patrolman as they made their way back to Meridian, and they would be delivered to the Klan; they would be taken to a remote spot on Rock Cut Road just a mile before you got to Edgar Ray Killen’s house and shot and transported to Olen Burrage’s dam site in time for their midnight date with the bulldozer.
The executions were said to have taken less than five minutes, and then the empty shells were collected and the bodies loaded into the station wagon, and what prosecutor John Doar called “the caravan of death” made its way to Olen Burrage’s dam and the waiting bulldozer operator, and by morning nobody who cared to look would have known anything had happened, anything at all.
“Midnight murder in the rural area of Neshoba County provides few witnesses,” Doar told the courtroom in his closing argument, and for a long time that was true, but the confident Klansmen could not keep from bragging (“It was the first time that Christians had planned and carried out the execution of a Jew,” Bowers was quoted as saying), and eventually, after the FBI applied heat, Doyle Barnette and James Jordan came forward. Even then the eighteen defendants were heroes, and aside from Barnette and Jordan, neither the defendants nor a good many Neshoba County residents showed any remorse.Life magazine ran the now-famous photograph of Cecil Price and Lawrence Rainey at their arraignment grinning with complete confidence, Rainey’s cheek swollen with Red Man tobacco. The sheriff, along with Olen Burrage, was among those acquitted for lack of evidence, but Price received six years, as did Billy Wayne Posey, who was said to have made the final arrangements for the bulldozer and for Burrage’s land. Wayne Roberts and Sam Bowers received the maximum penalty of ten years; Doyle Barnette, Jimmie Snowden, and Jimmy Arledge were given three. James Jordan was tried separately in Atlanta and sentenced to four. The charges for Hop Barnett, Jerry McGrew Sharpe, and Edgar Ray Killen were dropped, thanks to a hung jury and, for Killen, the woman who couldn’t find it in her heart to convict a preacher.
Aside from an annual memorial service at the rebuilt Mt. Zion Church, little was said or done about the murders for almost twenty-five years. Local sentiments ranged from those who viewed the three civil rights workers as “agitators” who got what they deserved, to those who considered the suspects an embarrassment to the community. Some took particular umbrage at out-of-town journalists and what they saw as their unfair portrayal of Philadelphia. The town itself, some said, was as much a victim as the three murdered men.
At the time of the murders, former gubernatorial candidate Richard “Dick” Molpus was fourteen, but even at that young age he was appalled by the local residents who refused to take a stand. He had been taught to address blacks as “Mr.” and “Mrs.” and had gained a deep respect for them while working summers at his father’s lumber mill, one of three in the area that served as major employers of African Americans. Like most Southerners of that era he had never questioned the various manifestations of Jim Crow, like the “colored” and “white” drinking fountains. Then came the church burnings, the beatings, finally the murders, and his view of the world changed.
“It was just a small minority of people that said, This isn’t right,” Molpus says. “You kidnap and kill people, burn their churches, castrate ’em, break their skulls—I didn’t hear a lot saying, This isn’t right. And I thought, I’m missing something here.”
He remembers being present when New York Times editor Turner Catledge returned to his native Philadelphia to meet with business leaders upset over aTimes article about the town and the murders. Catledge listened as the men quarreled not with the accuracy of what they were quoted as saying, but with the reporter’s audacity to include in the article what they had said.
After verifying the story’s accuracy, Catledge faced the men squarely. You’re not burning these churches or killing these people, Molpus remembers the journalist admonishing them, but you’ve thrown in with these guys because you’re letting them. You either have to show some backbone and step up, or you’re going to regret this for the rest of your lives. The men remained unrepentant. Turner, one of them said coolly, you may be from here, but you’re not one of us anymore!
The way Catledge held his own made a strong impression on the teenage Molpus, who promised himself that if he ever achieved a position of power and influence he would take a stand.
When names of the suspects began to circulate, neither Molpus nor a good many in the community were surprised. “Rainey was seen as a hard, harsh guy,” he recalls, “and when you’ve got law enforcement tied in with the Klan roaming the roads, you can get a lock on the community.”
And so the fear felt by many residents was not unfounded. Those willing to step up sometimes paid for it in one way or another. One of the most vocal was the late Florence Mars, who went on to write a book about the murders and the town. After she openly met FBI agents for coffee on the town square, the Klan boycotted her stockyards and eventually put it out of business. Once, as she was heading home from the Neshoba County Fair, Rainey pulled over her car, handcuffed and charged her with drunken driving, and threw her in the drunk tank, refusing to allow her the token one phone call. The White Citizens’ Council threatened to burn down the Molpus lumber mill unless his father fired employees who were attending NAACP meetings. The elder Molpus refused and instead armed three hefty lumbermen with deer rifles to stand guard. The mill was never touched.
At the time, Dick Molpus was too young to speak out, but he is convinced that coming of age during those troubled times had a profound influence on his life and his decision to enter politics—a career that quickly earned him a reputation as one of the bright, rising stars in Mississippi’s Democratic Party.
As the twenty-fifth anniversary of the murders drew near, it was Dick Molpus whom Stanley Dearman contacted first about putting together a memorial service. People would be coming in from all over the country, the Neshoba Democrat’s editor-publisher told Molpus. The community needed to do something.
Dearman was one of the people most responsible for keeping the case alive. He had covered the murders for the Meridian Star before going to work for the Democrat in 1966 and two years later buying the paper. He remembers the shock of moving into the close-knit community where he soon learned everyone was related in some way or another and that he best watch what he said. That tangled web of relationships often made coming up with trial juries difficult. Whether the defendant was a burglar or a murderer or a suspect in the killing of three civil rights workers—someone was kin to him.
“The judges and law enforcement people, the prosecutors all depended on votes, and nobody had the guts to come forward with this case because of the repercussions they anticipated at the polls,” he says. “There were years when it was just static, nothing happened—which I call ‘the years of futility.’”
Time, he says, had to take care of things, and that time seemed to come in 1989.
Philadelphians of all races turned out for the memorial at Mt. Zion Church, along with the families of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner. Even Mayor Wilson Goode and a delegation from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, came for the event. Molpus was in his second term as secretary of state, with a third term on the horizon. He was now where he needed to be to fulfill the promise he had made to himself as a teenager, to publicly apologize to the families of the three slain civil rights workers.
The apology brought death threats. It also cost him votes in the 1995 gubernatorial race after his opponent, Kirk Fordice, made the apology a campaign issue. But for Molpus, it remains his proudest moment, one that earned him the admiration and respect of many. In 2007 he spoke at the funeral of Goodman’s mother at the family’s request. Today he sits on the Andrew Goodman Foundation board.
Stan Dearman and many others view the apology and the 1989 memorial as a turning point, the moment when hearts and minds began to change. It was, in Dearman’s estimation, the event that made everything that was to follow possible.
“It helped get the focus back on the murders,” he says. “Some people had been in limbo about how to act or how to think about the case, and it brought some of those people forward into taking a stand.”
In 2004, Neshoba County’s NAACP president Leroy Clemons and Dearman’s successor James E. Prince III called on the community to form a multiracial coalition. Clemons was two when the murders occurred; Prince, who is white, was barely four months old. They had become friends while working at theDemocrat during their high school years, neither of them paying much attention to the skin color of the other. At first their intention was solely to plan a fortieth anniversary memorial, but the more the Coalition’s thirty or so members shared experiences of their own growing up, the more they realized they had a much bigger job to do.
“Everybody just kept saying, How can we say to the world we’ve changed, when we’ve never dealt with the past?” says Clemons, who knew nothing of the murders until eighth grade.
And thus came the Coalition’s “Resolution for Justice,” imploring the Neshoba County district attorney, the state attorney general, and the U.S. Department of Justice to do what those before them had not, to do all things necessary to bring about a just resolution to the case. “Failure to do so,” the resolution stressed, “would only further compound the wrong.”
On a cold January evening in 2005, Neshoba County Sheriff Larry Myers and his chief deputy made a trip down Highway 19 and took the turn onto Rock Cut Road, following the dark, rural lane past the spot where the three civil rights workers died, to Edgar Ray Killen’s house. They read Killen his rights, and then they carried him to the new jail and booked him on three counts of murder. On June 13, 2005, he became the twenty-seventh person brought to trial for one of the headline crimes of the 1960s.
The case of Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney was the one many people had long waited for, the one that had come to symbolize the darkest of Mississippi’s—and the South’s—bigoted past. In Philadelphia itself, some residents were of a mixed mind about reopening the case. Some insisted Killen was old and that after forty years his arrest was an outrage, that it only served to open old wounds. They said the town had suffered enough of the unfair burden of blame, that as many of the guilty came from Meridian as from Neshoba County (which is, in fact, true). They said, too, that the murders could have happened anywhere in the South. But there were many more who said Killen and the seven other living suspects might be old but they were still killers. (The other six were never indicted.) Only when justice was done, they insisted, could the community begin its long-overdue healing. Individuals of both persuasions took pride in noting that it was the multiracial Philadelphia Coalition that succeeded in having the case reopened—not outside pressure.
There was a certain familiarity in the courtroom and the town that made some observers uneasy. An out-of-town jury specialist called in by the prosecution marveled that everybody knew the Killens, and the Killens knew everybody in the community. The jury pool included at least one Killen cousin, and four of the witnesses (one for the prosecution, three for the defense) were related by blood or marriage. Circuit Court Judge Marcus Gordon himself grew up in the same community as Killen, and his parents’ joint funeral was conducted by the preacher. During the trial he sometimes referred to the defendant’s sister and his attorney by their first names. This, fortunately, was balanced by the fact that as district attorney he had prosecuted Killen in 1975 for making the telephone threats.
Two and a half hours into the deliberations, the jurors informed the judge they were deadlocked six to six, and it appeared Killen might reap the benefit of another hung jury. The next morning they returned and tried again, and it was not lost on anyone that this was the forty-first anniversary of the murders. The crowd inside and out of the courtroom waited and wondered if, against all odds, it might happen.
Killen displayed no emotion as the jury filed back into the courtroom three hours later. When Attorney General Hood pointed at him during closing arguments and exclaimed, “That’s the man that did it!” Killen had muttered an audible “Son of a bitch!” But beyond that outburst, he had shown no remorse, no emotion, throughout the trial, not even when the prosecution introduced photographs of the three victims as vibrant young men and as corpses buried in the red Mississippi earth. Nor did he as the jury forewoman three times found him guilty of manslaughter, a lesser charge prosecutors asked to be added to the trial when they feared jurors might find themselves unable to hand down a murder conviction for a man confined to a wheelchair.
In the end, the judge some had worried about came through with the maximum sentence of sixty years. “There are three lives involved in this case, and the three lives should absolutely be respected and treated equally,” he said in handing down three consecutive twenty-year sentences. “The law does not recognize the distinction of age.”
The mothers of both Chaney and Goodman were in the courtroom that day, as was Mickey Schwerner’s widow, Rita. Jewel Rush McDonald and Deborah Posey were also there clutching each other’s hand and quietly rejoicing. Years ago they might have seemed an unlikely pair to share that historic moment: McDonald, whose mother and brother had been beaten that night fifty years ago at Mt. Zion Church; Posey, who for a time was married to a cousin of suspect Billy Wayne Posey. They met working on the Coalition and are now friends.
Their friendship says a lot about the Philadelphia of today, the one I returned to last spring for the first time since 1976. The White Knights no longer have a presence in town, and there is some question as to whether Bowers’s old group even exists. Dot’s Café, where Killen and his crowd held forth, is dusty and dark. The old jail has a for sale sign out front, and next to that a historic marker takes note that in 1964 the three civil rights workers were held there. The schools integrated peacefully in 1970 without need for federal marshals to escort the students in. At City Hall, James Young is in his second term as Philadelphia’s first black mayor, having defeated a white incumbent who had served three terms. In the second race, he faced two white opponents. He had already been elected three times to the county board of supervisors. Two other blacks now sit on the Board of Aldermen; another served as fire chief until his death in 2008.
Only one of the original suspects is alive today, a man named Pete Harris, who at eighty maintains a low profile and an unlisted phone number somewhere in or around Meridian. Killen is incarcerated in Parchman while his second wife and siblings continue to live along Rock Cut Road not far from the murder site. They remain fiercely protective of their oldest brother, and I was warned by several people to steer clear of them. At the time of Killen’s 2005 arraignment, one brother assaulted a TV cameraman outside the courthouse. The state attorney general accused the same brother of threatening to kill the trial judge, though the judge refused to press charges. “They really don’t like reporters,” one source told me. “Several have been attacked. I don’t think you need to go out there.”
So instead, Leroy Clemons, president of the Philadelphia Coalition, offers to take me for a late-afternoon drive past the significant landmarks that, taken together, tell a story that played out when he was two.
We head west across the railroad tracks that once separated the black and white communities, stopping first at Mt. Nebo Missionary Baptist Church, once the heart of the town’s civil rights activities, and then continuing past McClelland Cafe & Grocery and several shuttered businesses left over from the days when blacks weren’t welcome at white establishments, on past a vacant lot where the Council of Federated Organizations headquarters once stood, and finally past a row of modest homes where young civil rights workers lived with the black families brave enough to have them. We cross back over the tracks and head through town, past Philadelphia High School, the Benwalt Hotel where the FBI set up headquarters, the county courthouse with its requisite Confederate soldier, and the old jail with the for sale sign.
It is after six-thirty when we turn onto Highway 16E and begin retracing the route Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney took on that final day of their young lives. The road is narrow and paved, a wall of towering pines to either side, the sun’s fading rays casting shadows across the pavement. Except for Clemons’s pickup there is no traffic, no sound other than his running narrative and the Ford’s steady hum as we travel the eight miles to County Road 747 and the turnoff to Mt. Zion. The three civil rights workers would have approached from the opposite direction, having made the trip from Meridian via Highway 491 before turning onto Highway 16, and then onto County Road 747 and following the windy little road through the soft, rolling land and modest cottages of the Longdale community to the blackened remains of Mt. Zion: the church bell, charred hymnals, a portion of the metal roof.
The church, red brick now, sits on a slight rise, with the resurrected bell on a stand out front next to a small memorial to the murdered trio. Dick Molpus has called the grounds “hallowed” land, a description I understand as evening approaches and I listen to Clemons reconstruct the June 16th evening the church was firebombed, recalling how two groups of Klansmen showed up around 9:30 hoping to confront Mickey Schwerner in the midst of a voter’s training session and instead arrived as church members were heading home after their weekly finance meeting, and how by that time the Klansmen were ready for blood, beating three members, one so savagely he would suffer the pain for the rest of his life. Later that same night the Klansmen returned to set fire to the church.
When Clemons finishes the story, the two of us return to his pickup and head toward Highway 16, this time turning right as the workers did that day. The sun is setting ahead of us, through the pines, turning the sky a delicate pink, and it occurs to me that Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner never saw the sunset that June 21, 1964, never, as it turned out, saw another sunset.
Several miles before we reach Philadelphia, Clemons glances ahead at the highway, a stretch of road with no distinguishing features that I can see, but one he has come to know well. This, he says, is where Deputy Price passed the workers, made a fast U-turn, and followed their blue Ford station wagon in hasty pursuit.
There are conflicting theories as to how Price knew Schwerner was in the area. One version attributes his intelligence to a black informer in the Longdale Community; the other, the version Price told up until his death in 2001, is that he was on Highway 16 headed for a nearby lake when he unexpectedly passed the blue Ford station wagon, though most observers doubt the deputy really happened upon the three by chance. Whichever version is what actually happened, the outcome was the same. Schwerner and Goodman apparently ducked to avoid being seen, with Chaney at the wheel keeping the speedometer at a steady sixty-five. Price bided his time until the station wagon crossed into the city where the speed limit abruptly dropped to thirty-five, and the chase ended. By four o’clock the three had been booked and Killen’s work began.
Clemons points out the Methodist church where the arrests took place, just before the turn for Highway 19 and the route Cecil Price took to escort the three out of town after they were finally released from jail. The infamous stretch of highway was renamed the chaney, goodman and schwerner memorial highway shortly after Killen’s 2005 conviction, and Clemons takes note of the sign and of Lauderdale County’s refusal to change the name from the county line to Meridian.
Like Highway 16, the road is narrow, lined with pines, and virtually deserted as darkness sets in. “I’m glad we’re going to have a chance to go down 19 when it’s like this,” Clemons tells me. “It will give you a good feel for what those boys went through that night.”
As he speaks, I realize how often he refers to the three as “boys”—never “young men”—and how fixed in time they are in most of our minds even though by now they would be in their seventies.
“This is where the Klansmen were waiting,” Clemons says as we pass the now-abandoned gas station–grocery where Killen’s Klansmen waited in idling cars until the blue Ford station wagon sped past, and then one by one the Klan cars pulled out, led by Cecil Price in his deputy’s car, gas pedal to the floor.
Ahead they could see the taillights of the station wagon. In less than ten miles it would cross the Lauderdale County line, and the three would be home free, and Clemons notes that now, regret in his voice.
“The boys were close to getting out of the county,” he says, shaking his head.
I look at the deserted road. I think of the Klansmen I have encountered, the stories I have read and heard over many years of following the KKK. “Do you think that would have made a difference?” I ask, not certain any simple, unmarked line would have stopped the determined henchmen.
But the question was moot. At the crest of a hill, Chaney suddenly swerved right onto a narrow rural road obviously hoping to lose Price and his posse, only to see the deputy’s car close behind, its red light flashing. The station wagon continued a short way more, then for some reason abruptly pulled onto the shoulder and stopped, and the Klansmen clambered from their cars, hands resting on their guns.
Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney were ordered into the back seat of Price’s car, and then the deputy and the Klan cars started back to Highway 19, a young Meridian truck driver following in the blue station wagon as the procession made its way through the Mississippi dark, to Rock Cut Road.
Leroy Clemons’s truck reaches an opening in the trees, and he turns right, into it, following the narrow road’s slight curve, into the deepening dark. “This is Rock Cut Road,” he says.
He positions the truck so that its headlights are trained onto a ditch and a wall of scraggly trees.
“This is it. It happened right here in this ditch.”
The historic marker disappeared several years ago, and now there is no marker of any kind, just an ordinary red stop sign aimed at a road that intersects Rock Cut Road. We climb out of the truck to take photographs, but the night has closed in and even a flashbulb is of little help. I look to the right, to where the road disappears into the dark.
“Is that where Killen lived?” I ask.
Clemons nods. “This is where Killen lived. This is where all the Killen family lives, down this road.” He points to the right to emphasize his point.
Except for our voices, there is no sound, no movement, and then I see a pair of headlights approaching in the distance, and I think about the two of us standing there alone, Leroy Clemons black, me white. I feel a building panic, and the image of Killen and me outside my motel room flashes across my mind as the lights grow nearer, until the car is upon us and finally continues past.
“Just go down the road about a mile, and you’d be there,” he says, opening the truck door and waiting for me to climb in. “But we won’t go down that far tonight.”
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