Mississippi takes steps to rectify sins of past

June 26, 2005|By Kenneth Lavon Johnson

THE DAY James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner disappeared, June 21, 1964, I was a young officer in the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General Corps, serving in the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) with the 1st Calvary Division.

News from the United States was hard to come by because we had no television, radio or newspapers except the military's Stars and Stripes, which the Army gave us monthly. I first learned, through another black officer, of the murders of the three civil rights activists after their bodies had been found 44 days after their disappearance.

My fellow officer pulled me aside and told me what happened in Philadelphia, Miss., in Neshoba County. Through tears, he related their killings by the notorious terrorist organization the Ku Klux Klan, with the assistance of a Neshoba County deputy sheriff. I cried also as he told me of the murders and that the black man, James Chaney, had been more severely beaten than the two white victims.

I left the Army and became a trial attorney in the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department in 1967.

Mississippi refused to prosecute the killers of Mr. Chaney, Mr. Goodman and Mr. Schwerner despite its knowledge of their identities and the mountain of evidence against them. My Justice Department bosses did prosecute the killers, but not on a charge of murder, since there was no federal law then that applied to the circumstances under which they were killed. They were charged with violation of the three men's civil rights under an 1870s federal law.

The trial, made famous by the movie Mississippi Burning, was presided over by segregationist Judge William Harold Cox, who once referred to blacks in his courtroom as "a bunch of chimpanzees." Seven of the 18 defendants whom the Justice Department prosecuted were convicted.

I've always believed that a major reason for their convictions was not only because of the evidence against them but also because one of the defendants threatened violence against Judge Cox if the jury convicted them. The threat angered Judge Cox, and his feelings were transmitted to the jury.

I knew what the prosecutors were up against because I was born and raised on a large farm in southern Mississippi, two counties southwest of Neshoba County. And as head of the Justice Department's civil rights operation in Birmingham, Ala., I was preparing under the same federal law the prosecution of a white deputy sheriff in Montgomery, Ala., in connection with the brutal and gruesome killing of a young black man.

I also was painfully aware of the acquittal by an all-white jury of the murderers of Emmett Till in 1955 and the failure of Mississippi to prosecute the leaders of the Ku Klux Klan in the firebombing death of Vernon Dahmer in his home in 1966.

In the 1960s, I hoped that the perpetrators of these heinous crimes would be punished appropriately. But I waited a long time to see this happen.

Although it has taken 40 years, Mississippi recently has taken steps to rectify the sins of its past. Reopening the Dahmer and Medgar Evers cases and gaining convictions was a start. The three manslaughter convictions of Edgar Ray Killen and his sentencing Thursday to 60 years in prison in the killing of the three civil rights activists was another step in this cleansing process. My pride in my Mississippi heritage has inched up a notch.

My hope is that the South will continue to track down and prosecute these terrorists of an earlier time so that the ghost of the past will no longer haunt us.

Kenneth Lavon Johnson is a retired judge of the Baltimore City Circuit Court.

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