Saturday, January 13, 2018

One Man's Death

As I wrote here when Charles Manson died less than two months ago, I get no joy from hearing that another human being has passed away, even one who caused great pain and suffering.

That, essentially, is how I received the news yesterday that Edgar Ray Killen, the mastermind in the conspiracy to murder three young civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964, died in prison a few days shy of his 93rd birthday.

By modern standards, plotting to murder three people usually merits little attention outside the community where such an act occurs.

But the '64 murders were different. Everyone from the president on down was watching developments in Mississippi. A priority was given to finding the missing civil rights workers; then, when their bodies were discovered, the emphasis shifted to bringing their killer(s) to justice.

Killen, an organizer for the Ku Klux Klan, was not present when the workers were abducted and murdered, but he was the one who coordinated everything — then made sure he had an alibi.

Homicide is usually a state charge, and juries in the South of the 1960s tended to be all white — and to acquit white defendants in the slayings of blacks. It was believed the only way a conviction could be obtained was through the federal judicial system, and Killen was among 18 men who, in 1967, faced federal charges of violating the civil rights of the three young men.

Seven of the defendants were convicted and sentenced to from three to 10 years in prison, but the jury couldn't agree on Killen. Eleven voted for conviction, but one refused, saying she did not believe a man of God could participate in something like that.

Killen was a part–time Baptist preacher.

He was convicted of participating in the murders in 2005, 41 years to the day after the triple slaying that inspired the 1988 movie "Mississippi Burning," and spent the rest of his life in prison. But he was convicted of manslaughter. So much time had passed since the murders that many witnesses had died, and the jury did not have enough evidence for a homicide conviction. Still three consecutive 20–year sentences were likely to be more than the 80–year–old Killen could survive.

And, indeed, he did not.

Since Killen's death, the only things I have seen written about him were news accounts of his demise. I have seen no columns, no editorials, no commentaries of any kind about him or the era in which he lived — and that he influenced.

I'm not sure what to make of that because I certainly expected to see something, particularly in a polarized time like this. It was only a few months ago, after all, that statues of Confederate soldiers were being brought down from coast to coast — and the Confederacy ceased to exist more than half a century before Killen's birth.

Killen was from the 20th century, about the same age as a fellow who lived down the road from me in central Arkansas. He wasn't, as far as I know, a member of the Klan, but he was a segregationist and an unsuccessful candidate for first governor and then U.S. senator when I was in elementary school.

Well, that was what the public saw. I saw a man who was kind and treated me like a member of the family. In fact, I spent many of my waking hours outside of school at his house, playing with his twin sons.

When he committed suicide eight years ago, I was stunned by the hateful comments I saw on social media sites where folks from my home state tend to congregate.

It was probably because of that experience that I anticipated an equally rabid reaction to Killen's death. Once again, I am stunned — but happily so.

I am inclined to think that maybe that is a good thing. Maybe the fact that a notorious Klansman like Edgar Ray Killen can die in prison and cause barely a ripple is a sign of a maturing society.

That is a welcome development when words like racist, sexist and Nazi are thrown around almost casually.

It is important, once in awhile at least, to be reminded of what those words really mean — and for whom the label is appropriate.

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