If you ran into Edgar Ray Killen at a supermarket, you would likely smile and try to help him to his car. The man is 80, in a wheelchair, and looks a little like Uncle Junior from the television series "The Sopranos." But Killen is no ordinary senior citizen. He is a former member of the Ku Klux Klan accused of one of the most significant murders of the 20th Century.
He is on trial for murder in Mississippi 41 years after three civil rights workers were killed there in a crime chronicled in the movie "Mississippi Burning." Public reaction to the murders, and to Mississippi's reaction to the murders, helped ensure passage of the first Civil Rights Act. Killen was initially tried in federal court in 1967 but an all-white jury deadlocked on the charges against him.
Four decades later, he is back in the dock — this time facing a state prosecutor. And this time facing a jury made up of perhaps as many as four black citizens of the state. Can you imagine what those jurors in particular are thinking as they sit and listen to the story of this long-ago crime? Can you imagine the swirl of history, politics, law and experience in their minds as they try to decide whether Killen is a killer or just an angry, bigoted man who rode the crest of an angry, shameful time?
These sorts of old cases now are all the rage in the South. Byron de la Beckwith was convicted of murder in Mississippi in 1994 for gunning down civil rights leader Medgar Evers. Beckwith died in jail a few years ago. Bobby Frank Cherry was convicted in 2002 for murdering four little black girls in Alabama by bombing their church in 1963. Cherry also died in prison a few years ago. And now it is Killen's turn to face the music.