Carol V.R. George is research professor of history at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. Her new book, One Mississippi, Two Mississippi: Methodists, Murder, and the Struggle for Racial Justice in Neshoba County, will be released from Oxford University Press in May 2015.
On June 21, 1964, civil rights activist Andrew Goodman sent a postcard to his parents announcing his safe arrival in Meridian, Mississippi: “This is a wonderful town… The people in this city are wonderful and our reception was very good.” Little more than twenty-four hours later Goodman was dead. Along with his two colleagues, James Chaney and Mickey Schwerner, Goodman was shot on a dark wilderness road by a group of local Ku Klux Klan members.
Forty-one years later, in June 2005, Edgar Ray Killen was named the architect of the conspiracy that killed these civil rights workers. This delay of over four decades to bring a measure of justice to this case—to the families of the victims as well as to those who had supported the plan to enfranchise black voters. It was powerful testimony about the nature of historical amnesia.
Once the Voting Rights Act of 1965 provided blacks the ballot, Americans generally—not just Mississippians—readjusted their moral compass to focus on issues other than those that once motivated movement activists. All those years, Edgar Ray Killen walked the streets of Neshoba County, Mississippi, confident that the surrounding white community would never bring charges against him, because the case had gone cold, because he was growing old, because it would resurrect bad memories, but also because at some level many believed his crime was not that horrific. Goodman and Schwerner were outsiders; Chaney, too, though he was a black resident of Meridian; and they had come into Neshoba County uninvited, with plans to disrupt the way of life most white Southerners held dear. Some whispered that “it was good they were gone,” and for Killen and his supporters, that sounded like an endorsement of what he had done.