What was that we were saying about Bible-clutchers who avow their belief that everyone ‘outside’ of JC will get conscious torment for eternity? And about the thought that people who choose to believe that, and sign a statement saying so at the beginning of their college careers, and carry on as usual in a cheerful tranquil manner – have something badly wrong with them; that such people are not, as is so often assumed of ‘devout’ believers, better than other people, but worse?
Well. Last January, some six months before Edgar Ray Killen was convicted and sentenced for the murder of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman, Jeffrey Goldberg wrote a piece in The New Yorker about a visit to Killen a few years earlier at his house near Philadelphia, Mississippi.
A sign on the narrow road that leads to Edgar Ray Killen’s house, in the low hills southeast of Philadelphia, Mississippi, reads “If You Don’t Believe in God, the Hellfire Awaits You.”
But Killen’s a preacher, so no doubt he does believe in God.
Killen is known around Philadelphia as Preacher. He used to preside over a small church nearby, where he taught the inerrancy of the Bible and the superiority of the Caucasian race, but that day he was apparently caring for his weapons. “My gun’s clean and ready,” he said…The killings took place on Rock Cut Road, a short walk from Killen’s house, and it has long been alleged that Killen, who, according to the F.B.I., was a founder of the local Klavern, organized the murder party. He was indicted on federal charges not long after the killings, but he benefitted at trial from a deadlocked jury. A holdout juror said she could not convict a preacher.
So not only does the Hellfire not await him, but he got four decades of impunity that he otherwise wouldn’t have. How spiritual.
He’d been more talkative a few years earlier in an interview with David Oshinsky for the Times Magazine. “I’m a right-winger who supports the Constitution as written by the Founding Fathers,” he’d said. When Oshinsky asked him about the murders, he replied, “Those boys were Communists who went to a Communist training school. I’m sorry they got themselves killed. But I can’t show remorse for something I didn’t do.”
I’d like to read that interview, but I haven’t found it online. David Oshinsky wrote a very good (horrifying) book, Worse Than Slavery, about Parchman Farm, the state prison in Mississippi and how it and the labor laws of the state functioned to reimpose slavery on the supposed freed slaves after the Civil War. Reading him on Killen would be pretty interesting.
I mentioned a conversation I’d had with Stan Dearman, who was then the editor of the local paper. Dearman had told me that some people in the town were thinking of building a memorial to the murdered civil-rights workers. This prospect sent Killen into a rage. At first, he didn’t even understand. “A memorial?” he asked. “To who? The dead guys?” I nodded. “Never!” he shouted. “It’ll never happen.” After a moment, he asked me to leave. He said, “I’m not a man of violence, but if you don’t get off my property right now, I’m going to shoot you dead.”
And that’s Preacher Killen.