Mississippi Terror:

Roses for an Unmarked Killing Field

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It was an impulse, stopping at a florist in Philadelphia, Mississippi, on a pilgrimage south down State Road 19. I bought three white roses.

Two months ago, scoping out the town where three civil rights workers had been killed in 1964, I'd found the now-deserted food store on S.R. 19 where Ku Klux Klansmen had stopped the activists.

But it wasn't until this week that I found the off-the-main-road site, about two miles from where the chase ended, that became a killing field. No marker recounts the sensational tragedy. Even accident victims get little crosses along the roadsides, but not slain toilers for liberty.

The three voter registration workers - New Yorkers Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney from Meridian, Mississippi - had been arrested on trumped-up traffic charges, and then freed late in the evening of June 21, 1964. The release by local cops was coordinated with the Klan, whose members followed the three men.

After forcing the activists off of S.R. 19, the Klansmen drove Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman back to where County Road 515 branches off. C.R. 515 winds about a half mile before forking with C.R. 284. It was at that fork that the three courageous young men were murdered.

I don't know if someone had planned to cover up what happened at that nondescript junction, but where the blood actually spilled there are now electric transformer boxes sitting atop a concrete slab. I put the three roses on the ground next to the slab. I shuddered trying to imagine the three men's final minutes of terror.

Edgar Ray Killen - an 80-year-old, part-time Baptist preacher - went on trial Monday for the 1964 killings. He was tried in 1967 on federal civil rights charges - and the jury couldn't reach a decision. The vote was 11-1 - the lone dissent came from a woman who couldn't believe a minister would kill people.

Killen lives on S.R. 515, only about a mile down the rural road from the murder scene. I walked up to his front door; no answer although I could hear voices inside. Across the road, a one-armed man wouldn't give his name, but confirmed his neighbor was Killen. He told me I'd better leave. Good advice. Two weeks ago, a British journalist knocked on the door of one of Killen's neighbors and was assaulted by a man wielding a metal pipe.

A brown car followed me after I left Killen's house. I turned in a driveway and went back towards S.R. 19. The brown car stayed on my tail. I stopped where I'd left the flowers. They were gone. I don't think it was the birds.

Killen is accused of being the mastermind of the assassinations. He allegedly pre-selected the spot for the killings. I wanted to ask him what he thinks when he drives by the junction. I noticed that across from his house is a Ten Commandments yard sign. I wanted to ask him about the Sixth Commandment.

-By John F. Sugg

John Sugg, senior editor of the Creative Loafing and Weekly Planet newspapers, is covering the trial of Edgar Ray Killen. Read more on the trial at www.johnsugg.com.

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