About 100 rally at Capitol for reopening of civil rights cases

Published 8:08 pm Tuesday, October 23, 2007

More than 100 people rallied at the state Capitol on Monday, calling on Mississippi officials to reopen decades-old civil rights cases and to create a cold-case unit to investigate such crimes.

“We’re here for a glorious and grave purpose. We’re calling on Mississippi to deliver justice for all its citizens,” said Richard Coleman Sr., president of the Meridian Lauderdale County branch of the NAACP.

The multiracial group of protesters included the young and old, and they chanted, “no justice, no peace” as they marched about a mile from the Mississippi Fairgrounds to the Capitol.

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Derrick Johnson, president of the Mississippi NAACP, said the organization will ask lawmakers to pass legislation next session establishing a panel to investigate long dormant civil rights cases. Organizers said there were 56 unsolved murder cases from the civil rights era.

“If the state is ever to move past this negative legacy, it must have a good faith effort to solve the crimes of the past,” Johnson said.

Pete Smith, a spokesman for Gov. Haley Barbour, said the governor isn’t opposed to reopening unsolved cases.

“The governor has always stated that if there is evidence out there to bring people to justice then they should be held accountable,” Smith said.

Coleman wants authorities to pursue more prosecutions in one of the state’s most infamous murder cases — the deaths of Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman, civil rights workers ambushed and killed by the Ku Klux Klan in Neshoba County in 1964.

Edgar Ray Killen, 82, was convicted of manslaughter in their deaths following a 2005 trial. He was sentenced to three consecutive 20-year prison terms and is in the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility outside Jackson.

Killen was tried along with several others in 1967 on federal charges of violating the victims’ civil rights. The all-white jury deadlocked in Killen’s case, but seven others were convicted. None served more than six years. Killen was the only person ever indicted on state murder charges in the case.

Coleman said the defendants in 1967 who are still alive should also be prosecuted on state charges.

“You don’t need new evidence. They have enough evidence already,” Coleman said.

Attorney General Jim Hood said all the state’s evidence against the defendants was presented to the grand jury, and Killen was the only one indicted. Hood said on Monday the case won’t be reopened unless new information surfaces.

Henry Allen, the son of a Liberty man who was killed 43 years ago, became emotional when he talked about his pursuit of justice.

Allen believes his father’s death is connected to the 1961 slaying of civil rights advocate Herbert Lee, who also was black.

Louis Allen saw then-state Rep. E.H. Hurst shoot Lee. The shooting was ruled self defense by an inquest, but Louis Allen told FBI agents it was murder. Louis Allen was killed outside his home by multiple shotgun blasts in 1964.

The Allen family is offering a $20,000 reward for information leading to a conviction in the case.

“I’ve been pretty patient because it’s been 43 years, but if the Lord spares me to live 43 more, I’m going to get justice done some kind of way,” Henry Allen told the crowd, drawing cheers and applause. “What I’m trying to say is if I have to sit on the White House steps, that’s what I’ll have to do.”