Dearman’s perseverance, courage brought a measure of justice to 1964 murders
On Tuesday, the body of a brave, old school Mississippi newspaper publisher and editor was returned to the red clay soil of Neshoba County.
Stanley Dearman, 84, died Feb. 25 in Gulf Breeze, Florida. He retired after publishing The Neshoba Democrat weekly newspaper in Philadelphia for 34 years from 1966 to 2000.
One story dominated his exemplary career in Mississippi journalism. It was a story that Dearman’s perseverance and courage guided to what would become a historic and important resolution in a Neshoba County courtroom some five years after his retirement.
Last year, federal and state authorities officially declared the investigation into June 21, 1964 murders of three civil rights workers by the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in Neshoba County, Mississippi closed after 52 years.
The narrative of the murders is well known. The crime was the subject of more than a dozen books, four movies, and hundreds of thousands of newspaper and magazine articles.
Dearman wrote some of those early stories while at The Meridian Star, and then continued his coverage after moving to The Democrat.
Civil and voting rights activists Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney were detained under color of law subsequent to their attempts to investigate of the burning of an African-American church. Klansmen, including law enforcement officials who delivered them to the murder scene, shot the trio to death on an isolated rural road.
Their bodies were buried in an earthen pond dam. Their crime? Trying to help the black citizens of Neshoba County register to vote.
The massive ensuing FBI investigation into the murders produced 21 arrests, 18 indictments and seven convictions on charges of conspiracy to violate the civil rights of the slain trio by men linked to the Klan.
Despite those 1967 conspiracy convictions, none of the men implicated in the Neshoba murders ever faced the scrutiny of a state court grand jury considering murder charges against them until 2005. That’s when Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood and Neshoba County District Attorney Mark Duncan took the case to trial in 2005 and won a manslaughter conviction against reputed Klansman Edgar Ray “Preacher” Killen in Philadelphia by a Neshoba County jury.
That conviction came 41 years to the day after the 1964 murders. Stan Dearman was in the courtroom to witness what he had called for in print in a 2000 editorial, his final one for The Democrat, when he wrote, “Come hell or high water, it’s time for an accounting.”
Duncan, my former Philadelphia High School classmate, eloquently echoed that sentiment in his closing arguments in the case: “Is a Neshoba County jury going to tell the rest of the world that we are not going to let Edgar Ray Killen get away with murder anymore? Not one day more . . . for 41 years tomorrow, it has been Edgar Ray Killen and his friends who have written the history of Neshoba County. You can either change the history Edgar Ray Killen and the Klan wrote for us, or you confirm it.”
On the 25th anniversary of the murders in 1989, Dearman laid the groundwork for the conviction that Duncan and Hood won when he published a remarkable interview with Carolyn Goodman, the mother of Andrew Goodman. The interview transformed Goodman in the minds of all who read it from a vague “civil rights worker” to a son whose mother mourned for him, a young person robbed of a bright future, and the victim of a senseless murder.
More comfortable with playing Chopin on his grand piano than with confrontation, Stan Dearman was an exceptionally intelligent, literate and cultured man — the antithesis of the elements he battled over the course of his life and work.
Without Dearman and his compatriots in the Philadelphia Coalition who worked for racial reconciliation and justice, the “accounting” Dearman advocated would never have been made. For that, Mississippi’s history should note and recall his heroism in the face of great danger.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at email@example.com.
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