By Don Teague Correspondent
NBC News
updated 1/7/2005 8:01:40 PM ET 2005-01-08T01:01:40

An alleged Ku Klux Klansman, Edgar Ray Killen, pleaded not guilty Friday to the 1964 murders of James Chaney, a 21-year-old black Mississippian, and two white New Yorkers — Andrew Goodman, 20, and Michael Schwerner, 24 — in one of the most notorious unresolved cases of the civil rights era.

It was the first time the state has sought criminal charges in the case of the three civil rights workers, who were voter registration volunteers at the time of their murder on a sleepy road in rural Mississippi.

The case helped cement the image of Mississippi as a haven of racial hatred in the 1960s and was memorialized in the film “Mississippi Burning.”

NBC News’ Don Teague describes the scene in the courtroom when Killen, 79, pleaded not guilty this afternoon.

Q: Edgar Ray Killen just pleaded not guilty in the 1964 shooting deaths of three civil rights workers. What’s next?

Yes, Killen pled not guilty to three counts — a separate count for each murder. There is a procedural hearing next week about Killen getting an attorney, because he didn’t really have an attorney today. The judge didn’t believe he was destitute, so didn’t want to appoint him an attorney — so there is a little bit of back and forth over finding him counsel. There will be a hearing next week over that. He is being held until then without bond.

Q: What was the scene like in the courtroom?

It was a little bit chaotic because there were so many cameras. Video cameras, TV cameras, flashes going off from still cameras, and into that scene walked this very old man. He said he would be 80 years old in a few weeks. It was interesting to see that.

There were a lot of people in the courtroom who came just because they wanted to see this man. They wanted to see him before a judge. There were also apparently some family members in there as well and supporters of his.

But it wasn’t a huge crowd. It wasn’t standing room only. It was a lot of media and probably about three or four dozen other people. It’s a very large courtroom — so it actually held quite a few people.

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Q: Killen is 79 years old — how did he look? How did he carry himself in the courtroom?

He moves OK, he moves slowly. He spoke pretty softly. In fact, the judge had to keep telling him to back up because he kept closing in closer and closer to the bench. The judge would tell him, “Back up,” because there is a certain distance at which they have to stand.

It was hard to understand what he was saying, until he said, “Not guilty.”

Each of the three times he said “not guilty,” he said it in a firm, clear and loud voice.

Q: What was the disruption as people were leaving the courthouse?

There was a man who was upset at the media attention. In fact, there were several people upset at the media attention. There were several incidents of people trying to shield cameras or even push camera people out of the way. 

One man, according to witnesses who saw it, came out and actually punched one of the cameramen. Then I heard him say to the sheriffs who were subduing him, “Yeah, I only punched two of them.”

Then as he walked outside, an NBC cameraman was following from some distance, and he broke free from the sheriff to run after the cameraman. He came right at him, but the cameraman managed to be nimble enough to get away from him, and the sheriffs grabbed him and took him across the street.

But there are clearly people here who are not happy today. Either because they personally know the suspect or because they don’t think the media attention is proper for their town.

Q: Does this arrest of Killen offer a sense of closure for people in the town of Philadelphia? Or is it reopening old wounds?

Both sides. There are many people, particularly the younger generation here, who say this is a long time coming and believe it is necessary for the world to see that this isn’t the same city it was 40 years ago. And that it’s necessary for justice to be done.

All of those people will also tell us that there are certain people out there who think that it would be better to just leave this alone. That there is still some racism in this area, and those people don’t necessarily think that Killen should be brought up on these murder charges today.

But, of course, as you can imagine, those people don’t want to go on camera to talk about it.

But, on the other hand, the brother of Cheney — one of the victims — doesn’t think that this has gone far enough. He’s holding out before he says justice was done today. 

Q: Are more arrests expected?

The district attorney said that there are no other arrests coming in connection with this case. This is it, in connection with those murders.

Don Teague is an NBC News correspondent.

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