A Klu Klux Klan leader behind the killings of three civil rights activists dramatised in the Oscar-winning film “Mississippi Burning” has died in prison at the age of 92.
Preacher Edgar Ray Killen was jailed exactly 41 years after the activists were shot dead on a rural road near his home and then buried 15ft deep in an earthen dam.
He was convicted of manslaughter in 2005 for the killings which were one of the most shocking and galvanizing moments of the US civil rights movement.
Killen was serving a 60-year sentence when he died at the Mississippi State Penitentiary hospital on Thursday, a week before he would have turned 93.
The cause of death was not released, but foul play was not suspected, according to prison officials.
Killen, a self-described segregationist who claimed he had no ill will for blacks, was involved in the murders of activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner along with fellow KKK members, local law enforcement officers and others.
Historians say the outcry over the incident, portrayed in the 1988 film “Mississippi Burning”, helped win support for civil rights legislation.
Chaney was a 21-year-old black man from Meridian, Mississippi, while Schwerner, 24, and Goodman, 20, were white New Yorkers.
They were part of a campaign to register black voters in the South during the “Freedom Summer” and caught the attention of law enforcement authorities and Klansmen when they came to Philadelphia, Mississippi.
After the trio was arrested on a speeding charge, Killen rallied the mob that would chase them down and kill them, his trial heard.
The part-time Baptist preacher, who operated a sawmill, told the mob to buy gloves and how to get rid of the bodies, but was not accused of being at the murder scene.
The victims’ bodies were found 44 days later after the authorities were tipped off by an informant.
The case received widespread attention and was investigated by the FBI.
Killen told the New York Times in 1998: “Those boys were Communists who went to a Communist training school. I‘m sorry they got themselves killed. But I can’t show remorse for something I didn’t do.”
Mississippi didn’t pursue murder charges in the case.
In 1967, Killen and 17 other men, including local Klan leader Sam Bowers and the county sheriff, were tried on federal charges of violating the victims’ civil rights.
Seven of the men, including Bowers, were convicted by an all-white jury and given sentences of up to 10 years. But the jury was unable to agree on a verdict for Killen, with the hold-out juror saying she could never convict a preacher.
Killen went quietly about his life after the verdict until a local journalist, Jerry Mitchell, revived interest in the case in 1998 with stories about taped interviews in which Bowers said he was “quite delighted to be convicted and have the main instigator of the entire affair walk out of the courtroom a free man”.
At age 80, Killen was the first and only person to be tried for murder in the case. He sat impassively in a wheelchair, breathing from an oxygen tank as the verdict was announced.
A jury convicted him on the lesser charge of manslaughter, arguing the state’s case was not strong enough to prove murder.
The case was officially closed by the state of Mississippi in 2016.
“Mississippi Burning” was a crime thriller that starred Gene Hackman, Willem Dafoe, Frances McDormand, depicting the FBI investigation into the activists’ disappearance before their bodies were found.
The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including best picture. It won a single Oscar, for best cinematography, with the award for best picture going to Rain Man.