Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Killen convicted -- justice delayed but not denied

It's taken 41 years and one day too long, but better late than never. Former KKK leader Edgar Ray Killen has been convicted of manslaughter in the infamous "Mississippi Burning" assassinations in 1964 of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.

This case ranks right up there with the 1963 murder of Medgar Evers. State interference prevented justice in the first two trials (i.e. hung juries), and the only reason Byron de la Beckwith, once a KKK leader, was finally convicted in 1994 was because a fellow Klansman, the Rev. Delmar Dennis, testified he heard Beckwith boast of murdering Evers.

In fact, Beckwith's claim was made as early as 1965. But the government never acted on that. Strange because even though Dennis had second thoughts about the Klan after the "Burning" killings and even after Dennis told the FBI about Beckwith, they were saving him instead for the federal trial in 1967 of Killen and his co-conspirators because Goodman and Schwerner were white -- and because Dennis had inside knowledge of the infamous ambush.

(Killen got off on a hung jury, while the other defendants were convicted of various civil rights violations).

Dennis repeated his assertions about Beckwith in the 1970s in an obsure book called Klandestine (yeah, I know, it's an awful pun) but no mainstream book publisher in those days would touch it; because while Dennis' conversion was genuine, he remained a member of a right wing think-tank called the John Birch Society. Even though John Birchers were and still are 100 % oppossed to the KKK, people still get some ideas when one says he or she is a member of the conservative organization.

Draw your own conclusions, but the fact it took another 15 years the book to be rediscovered when a defamation lawsuit was filed against the film Mississippi Burning tells you something about our world. To uncover the past, we have to reawaken ghosts. That's something we may not always want to do.

Rev. Dennis died in 1996, two years after Beckwith's conviction. He remains today one of the stranger characters in the American story. There is no doubt in my mind, however, that his assistance in nailing Beckwith set the stage for today's verdict. Had Beckwith been acquitted (or even worse handed another hung jury) there is no way Mississippi would have had the guts to go after Killen.

Justice may be delayed, but it is never denied.

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