A new look at old crimes
The Killen trial is the latest in a string of court cases that have taken place across the South over the last decade that take a fresh look at racially motivated attacks in the 1950s and 1960s. It's a sign of a budding maturity of the South resulting from the gains of the civil rights movement, increased political power for blacks and younger whites with progressive values, says John Dittmer, a historian and author of Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi. "Mississippi still has a long way to go," says Dittmer, who taught at Tougaloo College in the state from 1967 to 1979. "But things have changed. It's a start."
The summer of 1964, or "Freedom Summer" was one of the most violent times in the South's history since Reconstruction. There was an atmosphere of constant terror with at least 35 shooting incidents and the burning-down of 65 buildings, including homes and churches, says Dittmer. When searching for the bodies of the three civil rights workers, authorities identified the corpses of two other young local black civil rights advocates, Henry Dee and Charles Moore, in a bayou near the Mississippi River. But missing black civil rights workers didn't grab the media's attention like the disappearance of Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, two white, middle-class, college-educated New Yorkers. James Chaney was a black activist from the nearby town of Meridian.
Successful prosecutions of other civil-rights-era crimes may have helped prompt Hood to act. Byron de la Beckwith, murderer of Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers, was convicted in 1994. Thomas Blanton Jr. and Bobby Frank Cherry were convicted in 2001 and 2002 for the 1963 bombing of a church in Birmingham, Ala., that killed four black girls. Earlier this month in Chicago, the FBI exhumed the body of Emmett Till, a black 14-year-old brutally killed in 1955 in Mississippi, in an effort to seek DNA evidence for possible prosecution.
All these murders were important events of the civil rights era, says Michael Klarman, a legal historian at the University of Virginia and author of From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: the Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality. But Klarman isn't confident that the recent prosecutions will be as historically significant and do much to change racial inequality. "I have mixed feelings because it seems like an easy way to score political points," he told U.S. News. "What are these same people doing to improve the lives of black people or provide good healthcare and education?"
Steve Schwerner, the brother of one of the slain civil rights workers, tells U.S. News that he's glad that Killen is on trial but worries that it lets the state and local authorities off the hook for not protecting the civil rights workers and blocking blacks from registering to vote. "If the trial is used to say it's all over, it was just a handful of nuts," he says, "then the trial has done a disservice to Mississippi and the country."