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Context of 'January 15, 1965: Federal Jury Indicts Klan Members for Murdering Civil Rights Workers'

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Deputy Cecil Price and Sheriff Lawrence Rainey lounge in the courtroom during a hearing on charges brought against them in the murders of three civil rights workers. Rainey is chewing tobacco.Deputy Cecil Price and Sheriff Lawrence Rainey lounge in the courtroom during a hearing on charges brought against them in the murders of three civil rights workers. Rainey is chewing tobacco. [Source: University of Missouri-Kansas City]A federal grand jury in Jackson, Mississippi, indicts 19 Ku Klux Klan members and others for the 1964 murders of three civil rights workers, James E. Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. The indictments mark the first time in Mississippi history that white men have faced serious charges for committing race-related crimes. Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price will be sentenced to six years in jail. KKK leader Sam Bowers and KKK member Wayne Roberts will receive 10 years apiece. [American Civil Liberties Union, 2012] Investigators conclude that Bowers, the Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Mississippi, instigated the murders of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner. Klan members had attempted to kidnap Schwerner on June 16, 1964, but when they were unable to find him, instead set fire to a black church and systematically beat a group of black churchgoers. Schwerner, along with Chaney and Goodman, were in Ohio at the time and returned to Mississippi after hearing of the incident. Both Price and his superior, Neshoba County Sheriff Lawrence Rainey, are members of the KKK, and have a reputation for being “tough” on blacks, and officials of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the organization that sponsors the three civil rights workers, were worried about their safety. On June 21, while asking about the fire and the beatings, the three workers were notified that a group of white men was looking for them. They were arrested by Price while driving to the CORE offices in Meridian, allegedly on suspicion of being involved in the church arson, and taken to the Neshoba County jail. Price met with KKK recruiter (kleagle) Edgar Ray Killen to discuss what to do with the three. Price and the other police officers pretended to release the three, and let them drive away, but Price followed them in his police cruiser. Price pulled the car carrying the three over, placed them in his police cruiser, and drove them down a lonely dirt road, followed by at least a dozen Klan members. The three were beaten by the various Klan members, then shot to death by Klan member Wayne Roberts. The bodies were taken to a dam site at a nearby farm and buried under tons of dirt by earthmoving equipment. It is almost certain that Price informed Rainey of the murders and the burials upon returning to his office. Justice Department and FBI agents began investigating the disappearance of the three workers (giving the case the name “Mississippi Burning,” or MIBURN), and soon found the burned-out hulk of the station wagon driven by Chaney during the three’s final moments. Federal agents found it difficult to find witnesses willing to talk, but FBI agent John Proctor found that children were often knowledgeable and willing to speak in return for candy. A $30,000 reward offering led agents to the buried bodies. Informants from within the Klan itself finally broke open the case, particularly John Jordan, a Meridian speakeasy owner who cooperated with agents rather than face a long prison term. In December 1964, 19 men, including Price, Bowers, Roberts, and Killen, were arrested and charged under Mississippi law. Initially, a US commissioner threw out all of the charges against the 19, claiming that no evidence linked them to the crimes, but the 19 will be charged under federal laws instead. Segregationist Judge William Harold Cox will again dismiss the charges against all but Rainey and Price, but the US Supreme Court will reinstate the charges in February 1966. Cox will impose the extraordinarily lenient sentences, and will later say, “They killed one n_gger, one Jew, and a white man—I gave them all what I thought they deserved.” Price will only serve four years of his sentence before rejoining his family in Philadelphia, Mississippi. In 1999, Mississippi will reopen the investigation, and in 2005 will reindict Killen, who escaped conviction in the first trial because of the jury’s refusal to “convict a preacher.” Killen will be sentenced to 60 years in jail on three counts of manslaughter. [Douglas O. Linder, 2005]

Entity Tags: Sam Bowers, US Department of Justice, William Harold Cox, Wayne Roberts, US Supreme Court, Michael Schwerner, Ku Klux Klan, John Proctor, Lawrence Rainey, Congress of Racial Equality, Andrew Goodman, Edgar Ray Killen, James E. Chaney, Federal Bureau of Investigation, John Jordan, Cecil Price

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Three men affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan are arrested in Illinois on weapons charges. The three, along with three others arrested later, are accused of plotting to murder a federal judge and civil rights lawyer Morris Dees; blow up the Southern Poverty Law Center, which Dees co-founded, and other buildings; poison water supplies; and rob banks. The six will receive terms of up to seven years in prison. [Southern Poverty Law Center, 6/2001]

Entity Tags: Ku Klux Klan, Morris Dees, Southern Poverty Law Center

Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism

James Byrd Jr.James Byrd Jr. [Source: EbonyInspired (.com)]James Byrd Jr., an African-American resident of Jasper, Texas, is murdered by three white men in what appears to be a racially motivated incident. Jasper County District Attorney Guy James Gray calls the killing “probably the most brutal I’ve ever seen” in 20 years as a prosecutor. Within hours of the attack, John William “Bill” King, Lawrence Russell Brewer, and Shawn Allen Berry are arrested and charged with murder and kidnapping. All three men have prison records and room together in a local apartment; King and Brewer are members of the white supremacist groups Aryan Nations and Confederate Knights of America, the latter an offshoot of the Ku Klux Klan. The police find racist literature in their apartment [New York Times, 6/10/1998; CNN, 7/6/1998] , including documents written by King and Brewer indicating that they intended to start a new white supremacist group of their own. [New York Times, 2/17/1999] Local Klan organizations quickly disavow any connection to the crimes. [New York Times, 6/17/1998]
Last Ride - Byrd, walking home from a bridal shower, accepts a ride from the three; by all accounts, he does not know the men. Instead of taking Byrd home, the three drive him to a wooded area, beat him, chain him by the ankles to Berry’s truck, and drag him down a rough logging road east of Jasper. The dragging tears Byrd’s body into pieces; his severed head, neck, and right arm are discovered about a mile from where the three finally dump his mangled torso. During the trial, a doctor testifies that he believes Byrd is alive and perhaps conscious until his body strikes a culvert, where his head and arm are torn from his body. Dr. Thomas Brown tells the court, “He was alive when the head, shoulder, and right arm were separated.” The local sherriff, tipped off by an anonymous phone call, finds Byrd’s remains. A trail of blood, body parts, and personal effects stretches for two miles down the road. Berry, who cooperates with police and leads them to King and Brewer, later tells investigators that Brewer sprays Byrd’s face with black paint before he and King chain him to the back of the truck. [State of Texas, 7/1/1998; CNN, 7/6/1998; CNN, 7/8/1998; CNN, 2/22/1999] Investigators find a cigarette lighter dropped at the scene, inscribed with a Klan insignia, that belongs to King. [New York Times, 6/10/1998] Experts also tie blood on the truck, and on the three men’s clothes and shoes, to Byrd. [New York Times, 2/19/1999; New York Times, 9/24/1999] Berry’s involvement surprises many area residents, who characterize him as a petty criminal who they believed was incapable of being involved in such a brutal crime. A friend says: “I never heard Shawn say anything racist. I have a lot of black friends. He has a lot of black friends. All this news has just shocked me and everyone he knows.” Friends are less surprised at the involvement of King and Brewer, both of whom they say had their racial hatred intensified during their prison terms. “The level of racism in prison is very high,” says Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “The truth is, you may go in completely unracist and emerge ready to kill people who don’t look like you.” [New York Times, 6/17/1998]
Funeral Draws National Attention - Dozens of civil rights leaders and national politicians join area residents at Byrd’s funeral, and call for an end to racial hatred and intolerance (see June 13, 1998).
Father Apologizes - King’s father, Ronald L. King, also a Jasper resident, releases a letter apologizing for his son’s actions. The letter reads in part: “My sympathy goes out to the Byrd family. There is no reason for a person to take the life of another, and to take it in such a manner is beyond any kind of reasoning. It hurts me deeply to know that a boy I raised and considered to be the most loved boy I knew could find it in himself to take a life. This deed cannot be undone, but I hope we can all find it in our hearts to go forward in peace and with love for all. Let us find in our hears love for our fellow man. Hate can only destroy. Again, I want to say I’m sorry.”
Clinton: Town Must 'Join Together across Racial Lines' - President Clinton calls the murder shocking and outrageous, and says the residents of Jasper “must join together across racial lines to demonstrate that an act of evil like this is not what this country is all about.… I think we’ve all been touched by it, and I can only imagine that virtually everyone who lives there is in agony at this moment.” [New York Times, 6/11/1998]
Indications of Klan Activity in Area - The mayor of Jasper, R. C. Horn, an African-American, says that the city is relatively peaceful from a racial aspect, and says the city “has a strong bind together, both black and white.” But Gary Bledsoe of the Texas chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) says the area of east Texas that contains Jasper has been a center of Klan activity for years. Bledsoe points to serious problems in the nearby town of Vidor, for years a de facto “white town,” that centered around integrating a housing project. Lou Ann Reed, a local cashier, says she deplores the killing: “I don’t think anybody should be treated that way, I don’t care what color they are. Not even an animal.” Reed, who is white, refuses to answer when asked if she has heard that some white residents might have sympathies with white supremacist groups; when asked if the killing surprised her, she says, “Nothing surprises me anymore.” Black residents tell reporters that harassment and physical abuse from whites is not uncommon, and there are areas in and around town they have learned not to frequent for fear of being attacked. [New York Times, 6/10/1998; New York Times, 6/11/1998] A New York Times editorial calls the murder a “lynching by pickup truck.” [New York Times, 6/14/1998] Both local Klan organizations and black militant organizations march in Jasper shortly after Byrd’s murder (see June 27, 1998).
Hate Crime - Texas authorities charge King, Brewer, and Berry with a variety of felonies, including murder and kidnapping; the addition of hate crime charges makes them eligible for the death penalty. During their trials, both Brewer and King are depicted as unrepentant white racists. King’s former supervisor, roofing contractor Dennis Symmack, says that though a quiet man, King harbors strongly racist views. “Bill was a quiet man, not a talker,” Symmack testifies, and recalls King expressing “an intense dislike of blacks.” Symmack says that according to King, “[B]lacks are different from whites and are taking over everything—taking over welfare.” Tattoo artist Johnny Mosley, a former inmate who served time with King, says that King asked for an array of racist tattoos—including one depicting the lynching of a black man and another reading “Aryan Pride”—in large part to intimidate other inmates and to avoid being sexually assaulted. [CNN, 7/6/1998; New York Times, 7/7/1998; New York Times, 2/19/1999; CNN, 2/22/1999; New York Times, 2/24/1999] During the trial, King claims that the crime was not racially motivated, but was impelled by Berry’s desire to buy drugs from Byrd; additionally, he claims that Berry’s abuse of steroids prompted the brutalization of their victim, and that he himself had nothing to do with assaulting Byrd. Authorities find King’s claims entirely baseless [New York Times, 11/12/1998] ; instead, prosecutors tell the court that King wanted to start his own white supremacist group, and targeted Byrd as a way to shine attention on himself and gain members. [New York Times, 2/17/1999; CNN, 2/22/1999] During his trial, Brewer attempts to blame Berry for the actual murder, an argument that the jury disregards in favor of a letter written by Brewer bragging about his role in the murder and saying: “Well, I did it. And no longer am I a virgin. It was a rush, and I’m still licking my lips for more.” [New York Times, 9/24/1999] All three are found guilty; King and Brewer are sentenced to death, and Berry receives life in prison with no chance of parole until 2039. Both King and Brewer later write racist graffiti on the walls of their jail cells. In a jailhouse letter to Brewer, King will write of his pride in the crime, and accepts the fact that he may die for it. “Regardless of the outcome of this, we have made history,” King says in the letter intercepted by jail officials. “Death before dishonor. Sieg Heil!” [New York Times, 11/18/1998; New York Times, 2/17/1999; New York Times, 2/19/1999; New York Times, 2/24/1999; New York Times, 9/24/1999] During the closing arguments of King’s trial, Gray discusses the concept of violent racism: “It’s something that’s a virus. It’s something that’s dangerous. It’s something that spreads from one person to another.” [New York Times, 2/24/1999]
Murders Sparks Hate-Crime Legislation - The murder of Byrd and a subsequent murder of a gay Colorado student, Matthew Shepard (see October 9, 1998 and After), will be a catalyst for the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (see October 28, 2009).

Entity Tags: Thomas Brown, William Jefferson (“Bill”) Clinton, Shawn Allen Berry, James Byrd, Jr, Confederate Knights of America, Gary Bledsoe, Dennis Symmack, Ronald L. King, Aryan Nations, Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, James Gray, Ku Klux Klan, Lawrence Russell Brewer, Lou Ann Reed, Mark Potok, John William (“Bill”) King, R.C. Horn

Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism

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