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Last Updated: Thursday, 23 June 2005, 15:42 GMT 16:42 UK
Laying to rest ghosts of Deep South
By Chris Summers
BBC News

An 80-year-old man has been jailed for his part in the deaths of three civil rights activists in Mississippi in 1964. It is the latest in a series of convictions stemming from an era when race hatred raged openly in the Deep South.

Emmett Till and his mother, Mamie Till Mobley, who died in 2003
Aug 1955: Emmett Till, 14, from Chicago, is murdered and mutilated while on holiday in Money, Mississippi - Two white men were acquitted of murder by an all-white jury. Emmett's body was recently exhumed as part of a fresh investigation.
Jun 1963: NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers murdered in Jackson, Mississippi. White supremacist Byron De La Beckwith was jailed for life in 1994 but died seven years later.
Sep 1963: Four black girls killed in bombing at a church in Birmingham, Alabama. Three men are convicted of murder, the last of them in 2002.
Aug 1964: Three civil rights activists murdered in Mississippi - Edgar Ray Killen convicted of the killings in 2005

When Feraris Golden was found hanging from a tree in the back garden of his Florida home in 2003 the black community cowered in fear, believing he had been the victim of a lynching.

A coroner later decided Mr Golden, who had been dating the daughter of a white police officer, had committed suicide.

But the panic his death caused showed just how close to the surface race hatred is in the Deep South and how deeply engrained it is in the folk memory.

Only last week the US Senate finally apologised for decades spent blocking attempts to make lynching a federal crime.

Nearly 5,000 black Americans were lynched in the US between 1880 and 1960 and several Southern congressmen were blamed for blocking attempts to pass anti-lynching legislation.

Dark days

In the 1950s and early 1960s, racial hatred in the Deep South - particularly Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana - was like an open sore.

Whites had the upper hand, dominating politics, the economy and law enforcement and tried to force blacks to accept their role as an underclass.

Emmett Till was only 14 years old and ignorant of the ways of the South when he arrived from Chicago for a holiday with relatives in the small town of Money, Mississippi.

The body of Emmett Till is exhumed from the grave in Chicago
His "crime", it is thought, was allegedly wolf-whistling at Carolyn Bryant, a white woman, as he passed her on the street.

Three days later he was abducted from his uncle's house, taken away and beaten so badly he was unrecognisable.

His body was later recovered from the Tallahatchie river.

Mrs Bryant's husband, Roy, and his half-brother J W Milam, were later acquitted of the murder by an all-white jury.

Both men are now dead but it is commonly accepted they committed the murder, along with others.

The Emmett Till case was one of the sparks which lit the touch paper among black civil rights activists and their white sympathisers.

By the mid-1960s, the whites were losing their grip and white supremacists, including the Ku Klux Klan, were becoming increasingly desperate and vicious.

Edgar Ray Killen leaves court
Edgar Ray Killen pictured with his wife Betty Jo
In September 1963 four little black girls were killed when Klansmen bombed a Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama.

The following summer three civil rights activists - James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman - were on their way to investigate a church firebombing in Mississippi.

The trio were arrested by Cecil Price, a deputy sheriff for Neshoba County, who called Edgar Ray Killen and other local Klansmen and arranged for them to be ambushed on a road outside Philadelphia, Mississippi.

All three were shot dead and buried under a dam.

Price and several others were convicted of conspiracy charges in 1967 but were freed after a few years in jail.

'End of an era'

But Killen, one of the ringleaders, has finally been convicted of murder and jailed for 60 years.

"We are coming to the end of an era, there's not many more of these cases left," says Mark Potok, editor of the Southern Poverty Legal Center's Intelligence Report.

The victims of the Mississippi Burning case
The three civil rights activists were ambushed by a gang of whites
He said of the Emmett Till case: "It really galvanised black America. His mother decided on an open casket funeral and Jet magazine photographed his face, which was horribly disfigured.

"It galvanised blacks outside of the South, many of whom were out of touch with what was going on."

Mr Potok told the BBC News Website: "The South has changed radically since then and prosecutors are very willing, and indeed anxious, to bring these cases."

He said most people - both black and white - support the idea of bringing these cases but he added: "To some extent you can imagine that, if you live in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and that is all you know, you do not really want this sort of negative publicity."

'It's a new day'

Jim Prince, editor of the Neshoba Democrat newspaper in Mississippi, agrees: "It's a new day in the South. Younger generations don't have the baggage of '64 or the fear.

"Fear was a big factor. The Klan ruled with an iron hand, they were thugs."

Ku Klux Klan members at a rally at Valley Forge
It's not going to change overnight and sadly people all over the world still make decisions based on the colour of people's skins
John White

John White, communications director for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), welcomed Killen's conviction: "We're glad to see justice come, even though it's come late."

But he said they were saddened that Mississippi's two Senate representatives, Trent Lott and Thad Cochran, were among a dozen senators who had not signed the anti-lynching legislation.

Mr White said: "The South is completely different to what it was 40 years ago and a lot of black families have moved back there because of the way it's changed.

"But there is still a lot of work to be done.

"For example, a lot of desegregated schools have become all-black because white parents have put their children into private schools."

But, he said: "It's not going to change overnight and sadly people all over the world still make decisions based on the colour of people's skins."

Mississippi ex-Klansman convicted
22 Jun 05 |  Americas
KKK verdict sees 'justice arrive'
22 Jun 05 |  Americas

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