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United Methodists see ‘freedom’ as ex-Klansman found guilty

 


United Methodists see ‘freedom’ as ex-Klansman found guilty

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A UMNS photo by John Gordon

Memorial services for the slain civil-rights workers are held each year at Mt. Zion United Methodist Church.
June 22, 2005

A UMNS Report
By Kathy L. Gilbert*

Two United Methodists who have been fighting for justice in a 41-year-old civil rights murder case hope healing can begin following the conviction of a former Ku Klux Klansman.

Edgar Ray Killen, 80, was found guilty of manslaughter June 21 in the 1964 deaths of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman. The conviction came on the 41st anniversary of the deaths, which occurred in the small, rural town of Philadelphia, Miss. While the conviction took four decades, the two United Methodists who have followed the case say it is time for the community to enjoy a taste of freedom.

"When Martin Luther King Jr. talked about ‘free at last,’ in some degree, that’s what the people in Neshoba County are experiencing," said the Rev. Jerry Beam, superintendent of the Seashore District and, until a week ago, pastor of Philadelphia (Miss.) First United Methodist Church. "They are free from the burden of not doing anything about this and having it hang over their heads for years and years."

Beam was pastor at First United Methodist Church for five years and part of the Philadelphia Coalition, a citizens’ group that worked to reopen the investigation into the slayings. The coalition holds its meetings in the fellowship hall at First United Methodist. He was recently appointed superintendent.

"The reaction is one of relief, one of realizing the manslaughter conviction is a compromise, but at least something did occur. The community took a stand," he said. Beam said his wife was part of the grand jury that indicted Killen last January, and the couple has "been on a roller coaster ride" ever since arriving in Philadelphia.

On June 21, 1964, the three civil rights workers were in the Neshoba County jail. They were released, and Ku Klux Klan members abducted them later that night. Their bodies were buried in an earthen dam and found Aug. 4.

Cecil Price Sr., former Neshoba County chief deputy, had cooperated in the investigation to reopen the case against Killen. Price was among a group of men convicted in 1967 on charges of conspiring to violate the victims’ federal civil rights, and he served time in prison. He was a member of First United Methodist Church, and Beam officiated at his funeral in 2001.

"His son and daughter and their children are active, good members of First United Methodist Church," Beam said. "I didn’t talk issues with them because they were grieving, but I say that to say this is just typical of what has gone on in Philadelphia and Neshoba County in terms of relationships with a lot of these folks.

"We still have to go on and do what we can for these families. As far as the conviction goes, it brought a feeling of relief and freedom."

Dawn Lee Chalmers, who owns a gift shop in Philadelphia and is a member of both First United Methodist Church and the Philadelphia Coalition, said she is "overwhelmed with joy" at the conviction.

It has been a very personal roller coaster ride for Chalmers, whose father was assigned to the case fresh out of law school. Another relative, Florence Mars, wrote the book Witness in Philadelphia that later was turned into the movie, "Mississippi Burning."

Mars lived "across the yard" from Chalmers, and they often discussed the slayings.

"As a younger child I was horrified—horrified it could happen in the place I grew up. I was ashamed that that kind of hatred could be bred in the town that I grew up in and loved," she said.

She said she admires Mars’ courage to take a stand during a tumultuous time.

"I have always admired her courage to stand up. It was courageous for her to stand up and stand out against this," she said. "I don’t think she was the only one that felt like that; they were just not as brave." She said Mars was told to "back off," but she stood her ground.

"I watched ‘Mississippi Burning’ when I was a student at Ole Miss with a group of friends who were from all over the state, and I was just so ashamed," she recalls. "They were all looking at me like, ‘This is where you grew up?’"

She said no one ever discussed the case and it wasn’t taught in school. "It was just a silent subject. People did not want to bring it up, and I think that is why it festered," she said. "People don’t like to air dirty laundry."

She said she has asked her African-American friends if the subject was discussed in their homes, and she said only one out of 10 said it was.

Chalmers joined the Philadelphia Coalition to hear the truth first-hand.

"I wanted to hear what others had to say about it. It had been so hush-hush. I wanted to be a part of it, and I am proud to be a part of it."

Beam said he knows the widow of Michael Schwerner has said publicly that the Killen case is a new beginning for further indictments and convictions.

"I don’t know what the future holds. I presume people are going to kind of sit back and breathe freely for a while and kind of get reoriented for a while before they decide where they want to go."

Chalmers agrees it is time to start healing and to rejoice in this first step.

"I think it will heal all of those people’s feelings, or at least put something positive on something that has always been so negative."

*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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