Justice for all?

Published 12:00 am Monday, June 21, 2004

The fact that Mississippi never charged anyone with the murders of Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney remains as a festering issue.

External healing may be complete some day, but that’s a matter that will continue to be a source of deep-seated pain.

“Forty years is a long time,” Prince said. “It’s too long.”

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During the past several years, a handful of civil rights-era murder cases have been reopened and successfully prosecuted, making some in Philadelphia optimistic.

In 1999, then-Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore reopened the case and assigned investigators. But Moore has left office, many witnesses have died and only two of the key suspects remain alive Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers, who is serving a life sentence, and Edgar Ray Killian. The 1967 federal trial transcript contains testimony identifying Bowers as the man who gave the orders to kill the three civil rights workers.

Amid planning today’s events, the coalition passed a resolution calling for justice on May 26. Two days later, state Attorney General Jim Hood, who took office in January, said he had asked for the U.S. Justice Department’s help investigating the murders. For the first time, an end seemed possible.

“This isn’t about sending an old man to jail to live the last years of his life,” Clemons said. “It is about someone paying for the deaths of three men. It is not about sending an 80-year-old to prison. It is about getting everything out in the open.”

Others groups have followed in the lead. Fenton Deweese, a Philadelphia lawyer, reported to the coalition that the Mississippi Trial Lawyers Association issued a rare decree calling for justice in the case at its state convention.

Also while he was speaking, a representative from the Magnolia Bar Association, a group mostly composed of black lawyers, said that organization would join in supporting the efforts to prosecute involved parties.

“This is too important of an issue to ignore,” Deweese said. “This was the catalyst of the civil rights. We owe a debt of gratitude to Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney.”

Glisson, as director of the fledgling institute at Ole Miss, works with communities all over Mississippi. She said she has been impressed with the resolve of the Philadelphia residents.

While outside forces had helped bring up other old cases, this was the first time a community has taken responsibility and been the main driving force behind the initiative.

“This is the first grass roots effort within the state,” she said. “I think it represents where the state is heading.”

The wounds are real from the past, but Mayor Rayburn Waddell said they may have made the community stronger. He added that while progress has been made, Philadelphia cannot be content with what it has done in the past.

“We are not a racist community,” he said.

Outsiders have a perception of Philadelphia of the past, he said, but once they visit or move to Neshoba County they find a different image.

Lee Cole will always remember the cars that morning. He’ll always remember the sight of his father’s injury.

“What happened never should put it in the past, but still want to go forward,” he said. “Without history you have no future.”

Scars, as much as they hurt, can add character.