‘It’s Time For An Accounting’ — A Weekly Newspaper’s Story
Over forty years and through two publishers, the Neshoba (Mississippi) Democrat struggled to come to terms with the murders of three civil rights workers in 1964.
The Democrat’s editor, Stanley Dearman, conducted the interview with Dr. Goodman at her apartment in New York city. Prince had heard about the murders of Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Mickey Schwerner from his first memories — how the three had been pulled over by a local law enforcement officer in Philadelphia on June 21, 1964, tossed in the Neshoba County jail, released and never heard from again. He knew that the car the three young men were driving was found a few days later, abandoned and burned, and that in early August of that year the bodies of the three — two white and one black — were eventually dug out of a earthen dam. He knew that seven men were eventually convicted on federal conspiracy charges, but none had served more than six years in prison. And he knew that the state had never prosecuted a soul for the killings.
It was Dearman’s interview with Goodman, however, that “put a face on them for me,” Prince said of the three slain civil rights workers. “I wasn’t much older than Andy at the time I was reading the article. I was moved by the way his mother described him. He was athletic. He loved dramatic arts. He was a peaceful person who cared about people. That was a turning point for me, and I decided I had to be in Philadelphia for the (25th anniversary) memorial service.” Prince left his job at the daily paper in Alabama and came home to work that summer for the Democrat.
On June 27, the Neshoba Democrat received an award from the Institute for Rural Journalism at the University of Kentucky. The Tom and Pat Gish Award is given for courage, integrity and tenacity in rural journalism. The Neshoba Democrat, Stanley Dearman and Jim Prince have shown all that and more over the past four decades.
Dearman bought the paper two years after the three civil rights workers were murdered. He brought to the paper a determined kind of journalism. For example, Dearman exposed a bootlegging ring that brought in booze from Missouri to the dry county and used the local grand jury and constabulary to drive out competitors.
From the time Dearman first came to Philadelphia, he was haunted by the killings of the three civil rights workers and by the failure of the state ever to bring the murderers to justice. Dearman also knew that the town had never come to terms with the murders, in part because the town had never been confronted with the young lives that ended on the back roads of Neshoba County.
In 1964, Jack Tannehill edited the Democrat, and he had little sympathy for the three young men. He called them “agitators” and members of “so called civil rights groups.” In editorials, he rarely mentioned their names. With the 25th anniversary of the killings ahead, Dearman wanted his readers to know the people who had been killed in their community. So in the spring of 1989 he traveled to New York and talked to Dr. Carolyn Goodman about her son. The interview filled an entire page of the Democrat and it brought Jim Prince back to Philadelphia.
By 2000, the crime was still unsolved, and so Dearman wrote an editorial headlined, “It’s Time For An Accounting.” The aging publisher urged the state attorney general to act:
There are those in this community who will say that it’s been too long. The trouble with that position is that they were saying it after five years, after 10 years, after 15 years. If it involved a member of their family or a friend, they would never say it’s been too long. And if they claim that right for themselves, how can they in good conscience deny it to anyone else?
Besides, the law in no state or nation excuses murder after a certain number of years.
If that were the case it would mean a free murder every 20 or 30 years. There are some crimes so terrible that no one is given a chance to beat the system by marking time; murder is one of them. When a person’s life is taken away without legal justification, such as self-defense, societies everywhere consider it a crime so horrible that a killer has no right to think he is beyond the reach of the law, no matter how remote in time it may be.
None of this would be an issue if a group of self-appointed saviors of the status quo had not taken it upon themselves to murder three unarmed young men who were arrested on a trumped up traffic charge and held in jail like caged animals until night fell and they could be intercepted by the Ku Klux Klan, a group whose bravery increases in direct proportion to their numbers and how long the sun has set.
The car Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner were driving was found a few days after the three disappeard. It had been burned.
If the law enforcement officers involved in the case had just left the three men alone, this case would not have put Neshoba County and Philadelphia on the map the way it did. Nor would it have made fodder for television documentaries and dramas or motion pictures. Nor would there be the steady stream of visitors, or of unflattering journalists from other parts of the nation and many foreign countries, usually around the June 21 anniversary.
The Klansmen may have thought they represented the community; they didn’t represent everyone as, for example, the late Mrs. Annie Lee Welsh who, shortly after the murders, encountered an old man, obviously a Klan sympathizer, in front of a downtown shop. “Well, Lee,” he said, “they did it for us.” Miss Annie Lee drew up all of her five feet and 90 pounds into the man’s face and said, between clenched teeth, “Well, they didn’t do it for me.”
This is a case that never goes away for the reason that it has never been dealt with in the way it should have been. It’s time to bring a conclusion by applying the rule of law.
Come hell or high water, it’s time for an accounting.
The accounting would eventually come, but Stanley Dearman would no longer be the editor of the Neshoba Democrat. Dearman sold his paper to Jim Prince in 2000, and the new publisher picked up exactly where his predecessor left off. Prince joined with the local president of the NAACP and the two put together a town-wide coalition to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the event in 2004. The meetings to plan the event were described as “cathartic.” Eventually the town’s entire leadership backed the event — and agreed to a unified call for justice in the case.
Justice came the next June, when, on the 41st anniversary of the killings, Edgar Ray Killen, an 80-year-old sawmill operator, was convicted of the murders.
Prince had daily updates on the paper’s web site during the trial. “The trial was televised, but I wanted our readers to know exactly what happened in the courtroom and what the evidence was,” Prince told the American Journalism Review. “We had a former mayor who said on the stand that the Klan was a good thing. People needed to know that. They needed to read about it in our paper.” The conviction, Prince said, “is finally lifting the cloud of fear from our community.”
The Neshoba County Courthouse in 1987.
Prince has documented the murders and their aftermath on the Neshoba Democrat’s web site. If you look along the left-hand rail, you’ll find original articles from the summer of 1964, stories about Dearman’s interview with Carolyn Goodman, articles from the 40th anniversary edition of the Democrat and complete coverage of the Killen trial. Local newspapers are important to rural towns in ways the big city press — and urban readers — can never understand. Spend a few minutes thumbing through these old files, however, and you’ll see how important the Democrat has been to Philadelphia.
When Stanley Dearman retired, the entire town turned out for a reception held at the local library. “It was the whole town,” Prince says. “All the leaders were there, plus people in work clothes who’d obviously come from the factories and lumber mill.”
And there was one other special guest at Stanley Dearman’s party. Carolyn Goodman came back to Philadelphia, where her son was killed and where she found an editor and a local newspaper that sought understanding and redemption.