Justice in Mississippi

The Murder Trial of Edgar Ray Killen

Howard Ball

The slaying of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi, in 1964 was a notorious event documented in Howard Ball's 2004 book Murder in Mississippi. Now Ball revisits that grisly crime to tell how, four decades later, justice finally came to Philadelphia.

Originally tried in 1967, Baptist minister and Klansman Edgar Ray Killen was set free because one juror couldn't bring herself to convict a preacher. Now Ball tells how progressive-minded state officials finally re-opened the case and, forty years after the fact, enabled Mississippians to reconcile with their tragic past.

“Ball examines this multifaceted story and makes two important arguments. First, he maintains that the Killen trial demonstrates the changing nature of Mississippi race relations. Second, that the conviction represents a watershed in state race relations. He persuasively states that without ‘justice—even justice delayed—there can be no reconciliation of the races in Neshoba County and in Mississippi.’

—Journal of Southern History

“Tells an important and inspiring story. . . . A superb blend of keen observations and intriguing eyewitness accounts.

—H-Law
See all reviews...

The second trial of 80-year-old "Preacher" Killen, who was convicted by a unanimous jury, took place in June 2005, with the verdict delivered on the forty-first anniversary of the crime. Ball, himself a former civil rights activist, attended the trial and interviewed most of the participants, as well as local citizens and journalists covering the proceedings.

Ball retraces the cycle of events that led to the resurrection of this "cold case," from the attention generated by the film Mississippi Burning to a new state attorney general's quest for closure. He reviews the strategies of the prosecution and defense and examines the evidence introduced at the trial-as well as evidence that could not be presented-and also relates first-hand accounts of the proceedings, including his unnerving staring contest with Killen himself from only ten feet away.

Ball explores the legal, social, political, and pseudo-religious roots of the crime, including the culture of impunity that shielded from prosecution whites who killed blacks or "outside agitators." He also assesses the transformation in Mississippi's life and politics that allowed such a case to be tried after so long. Indeed, the trial itself was a major catalytic force for change in Mississippi, enabling Mississippians to convey a much more positive national image for their state.

Ball's gripping account illuminates all of this and shows that, despite racism's long stranglehold on the Deep South, redemption is not beyond the grasp of those who envision a more just society.

About the Author

Howard Ball, professor of law at Vermont Law School and professor emeritus of political science at the University of Vermont, for many years taught at Mississippi State University. In addition to Murder in Mississippi he is the author of two dozen other books, including The Bakke Case: Race, Education, and Affirmative Action and A Defiant Life: Thurgood Marshall and the Persistence of Racism in America.