Here’s why it was necessary to try that feeble old man, in his wheelchair with his portable oxygen, for a murder that happened 41 years ago in another period of U.S. and Mississippi history:
Before my father, Marvin Braiterman, left for Mississippi to work as a volunteer lawyer for the civil rights movement in the summer of 1964, he called the situation down there “an unprecedented case of a state using its police power to break the law.”
The 14th Amendment was adopted after the Civil War to outlaw racial discrimination, but it hadn’t happened yet. It happened with the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, which specified what kinds of discrimination were against the law.
In response, the Mississippi Legislature passed laws aimed at African-Americans who tried to exercise those legal rights and civil rights workers who came down to help them. Speeding, jaywalking, loitering could mean a night in jail at the mercy of law enforcement.
This was not new in the South. It was OK to lynch a black person for looking at a white woman. It happened to 17-year-old Emmett Till from Chicago just a few years before. All-white, all-male Southern juries routinely let the murderers go free. If they were arrested in the first place, they sat in those courtrooms laughing with contempt at the proceedings, knowing what the outcome would be.
Edgar Ray Killen needed to go on trial this year so he could feel fear after inflicting so much fear on so many people. He wasn’t just aiming at three individuals; he was sending a message to a whole population.
Now it’s the government’s turn to send a message to people of Mr. Killen’s ilk: It was not OK in 1964 and it’s not okay now. He may be too old to make amends for his crime, but at least Mississippi has been able to make amends for the crimes it permitted. That’s necessary, too.