UNION, Miss. – Edgar Ray Killen’s friends say he likes to chat.
They tell stories about fishing trips that had to be canceled when a quick exchange with Killen, 80, stretched into an hourlong huddle.
“He is,” said Kenny Joe Bankston, a sawmill operator and neighbor, “flat hard to get away from.”
In a trial that begins today in Philadelphia, Miss., prosecutors are expected to paint a picture of a much younger and more menacing man. They will make the case that Killen was the leader of the Neshoba County Ku Klux Klan and planned the June 1964 murders of Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney.
The three civil rights workers were overtaken by a group of men and shot to death on a highway outside town. Federal agents swarmed into town to investigate their disappearance – and, 44 days later, the victims’ bodies were found buried in an earthen dam.
Killen was never placed at the crime scene, but prosecutors argued it didn’t matter. That summer, the 39-year-old country preacher who was practically unknown in Philadelphia had the power to make things happen in Neshoba County without lifting a finger.
“It was a measure of how strange the times were that a person like him could be launched to the fore,” said Philip Dray, co-author of “We Are Not Afraid,” a history of the slayings. “I’ve talked to lots of local people, and he … was considered a hillbilly, really.”
Killen was tried on federal conspiracy charges in 1967, but the jury deadlocked 11-1. The lone holdout declared she couldn’t convict a preacher.
A series of high-profile civil rights-era murders have been reopened since the late 1980s, and pressure gradually mounted to address the Neshoba County killings, which were the basis for the movie “Mississippi Burning.”
Although a number of men originally tried in the case are still alive, a grand jury in January indicted only Killen.
Killen has denied involvement in the slayings and the Klan.
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