Reputed Ku Klux Klan leader Edgar Ray Killen said today he was not guilty when he was arraigned here on murder charges in the slayings of three civil rights workers more than 40 years ago. His arrest yesterday marked the first time the state of Mississippi sought criminal charges in a case that outraged the nation.
The prosecutor said Killen was the only person indicted in the 1964 abduction and murder of voter-registration volunteers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.
"These were vicious Klan murders committed with the full cooperation of the local sheriff," said Center chief trial counsel Morris Dees. "The bright side of the situation is that had the killers been indicted in 1964, an all-white jury would likely have acquitted them, despite compelling evidence."
In 1964, New Yorkers Goodman and Schwerner joined Chaney, a Mississippian, for the Mississippi Summer Project, a campaign to register black voters throughout the state. On June 21, they were beaten and shot on an isolated road. After an intensive search, their bodies were found under an earthen dam six weeks later, on August 4, 1964.
In 1967, federal charges were brought against 18 suspects in connection with the slayings. Seven were convicted on federal civil rights violations, eight were acquitted, and three, including Killen, were released when their cases ended in mistrials after juries deadlocked. No one who was convicted spent more than six years in prison, and the state never, until now, charged any of the men.
Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, a leader in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee during the civil rights era, said on NBC's "Today" show that Killen's arrest and the reopening of other civil rights era cases in recent years would "have a redeeming effect on the very soul of this region of our country."
Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner are among the 40 martyrs listed on the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery.