• U.S.

Mississippi: Reckoning in Meridian

3 minute read

Every morning the boys from Bill Gordon’s barbershop in Meridian, Miss., staked out a big Confederate flag. Across the street, U.S. District Judge W. Harold Cox and a jury of white Mississippians were hearing charges against 18 of their neighbors named as plotters in the grisly 1964 murders of Civil Rights Workers Michael Schwerner, 24, Andrew Goodman, 20, and James Chaney, 21. The indictment did not specify murder—merely a conspiracy to deny the dead men their constitutional rights under a federal statute dating back to Reconstruction days. But the flag was a reminder that the Deep South never cottoned to such laws. Then one morning last week a barber slipped through the waiting townsfolk and somberly rolled up the flag: according to reports from the courtroom, the seven women and five men of the jury were bringing in guilty verdicts.

Three housewives, a school-cafeteria cook, an electrician, a pipe fitter, a secretary, a gas-company clerk, a grocer, two factory workers and a former state appointee were making history. Never before had a federal jury drawn from Mississippi veniremen convicted white defendants in any civil rights case.

After 14 hours of deliberation, it took less than three minutes for Courtroom Clerk Mrs. Sue Richmond to declare seven men guilty of a conspiracy that began when Meridian’s White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan voted to “eliminate” Schwerner for running a Negro community center and culminated when the lynch mob bulldozed three bullet-stitched corpses into an earthen dam. One of the men convicted was Neshoba County Chief Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price, 29, who set up the killings by arresting the young activist for speeding; another was Samuel H. Bowers Jr., 42, the White Knights’ Imperial Wizard. They face maximum sentences of ten years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

Eight accused conspirators were acquitted—one of them at the Government’s request. Among those who went free was Neshoba’s Sheriff Lawrence A. Rainey, although Assistant U.S. Attorney General John Doar charged that Klansman Rainey’s inaction at the time of the murders clearly implicated him. The jury, which was hopelessly deadlocked much of the time and had to come back for a “supercharge” by Cox, could not agree on the guilt of three others. In their cases, the judge declared a mistrial, and although two of the trio freed on bond—Fundamentalist Minister Edgar Ray Killen and E. G. Barnett, Democratic nominee to succeed Rainey as sheriff—were fingered as deep in the plot by witnesses, according to Government lawyers, they are unlikely to be retried.

Scrupulously Fair. Mississippi alone can bring murder charges against any or all of the 18, but it has not so far. “We’ll have to study the evidence from the trial,” commented District Attorney William Johnson Jr. State attorneys claimed that the Government’s carefully gathered evidence—mostly amassed by the F.B.I.—was “a complete surprise” to them, although federal officials say they offered it long ago to Governor Paul Johnson.

White-thatched Judge Cox, a native Mississippian and confirmed segregationist, conducted the trial with scrupulous fairness. Reacting angrily to a bomb threat—explosives had been stolen from a Meridian construction company the week before—the judge bundled Price and convicted Defendant Alton Wayne Roberts off to jail without bond. “I’m not going to let any wild man loose on a civilized society,” he lectured Roberts. Roberts, a swarthy, former nightclub bouncer, had said earlier that the judge had given a “dynamite charge” to the jury. “Well,” Roberts was overheard telling Price, “we’ve got the dynamite for him ourselves.”

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