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Edgar Ray Killen Needs Some Company

This morning, Edgar Ray Killen was sentenced to sixty years in prison after being found guilty of three counts of manslaughter.

John Steele and Hollis Watkins

John Steele speaking, as Hollis Watkins looks on. The two men stand in front of the largest remaining wall of the Longdale Community Center. (Photo by Benjamin T. Greenberg)

Last Sunday, I attended the 41st Annual Chaney Goodman Schwerner Memorial in Neshoba County, Mississippi. This year the memorial was held on the Steele family land, at the site of the former Longdale Community Center.

One of the speakers at this year's memorial was John Steele, son of Cornelius and Mable, a civil rights pioneering couple. Cornelius Steele first started trying to register to vote on his own accord in 1951, without the support of civil rights workers. It was Cornelius Steele who first conceived of the memorial service forty-one years ago, as a way to honor these struck down American heroes, ensure they were not forgotten and provide a vehicle for bringing justice in their murders. John Steele was ten during the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964, and he knew James Chaney and Mickey Schwerner. John says that they were truly close friends and playful with one another. John Steele has since then been one of the strongest and longest standing voices for truth and justice in the murder case.

Last week, during the trial, a reporter asked John Steele what he thinks about Killen being prosecuted for murder after all this time. Steele said, “I told the reporter he [Killen] needs some company.”

In 1982 the community center burned down under mysterious circumstances. All that remains are portions of the brick walls and the concrete that was poured into the foundation. The land had not been used for years. The grass and brush were so overgrown that the remains of the Community Center were not visible to anyone passing by on the road. In the week before the memorial Steele family members and others in the local community cleared the grounds completely, to make an open space where they set up tents and tables and chairs and served all the guests wonderful food—traditional Southern items like ribs and fried chicken and baked beans, as well as nice vegetarian salads for people like me who are not meat eaters.

In the Longdale community in rural Neshoba County, Mickey had befriended Cornelius Steele, who "has been most eager and cooperative in the freedom registration and also has a great desire to help set up the Summer Project there." Steele showed Mickey an abandoned Negro school that was for sale as a possible site for a freedom school and community center. He told Schwerner he thought people in Longdale would put up the money to buy the place. "As promising as things look," Mickey noted, "one must keep in mind that Neshoba is a very 'tough' county, indicated by the fact that no Negro has been registered since 1955."

Owing to Cornelius Steele's encouragement, Longdale was a constant destination for Schwerner and Chaney. Between February and June 1964, as they prepared for the Summer Project, Schwerner and Chaney made some thirty trips there.

(Seth Cagin and Phillip Dray, We Are Not Afraid, 271)

John Steele continued in his remarks last Sunday, saying, "we’ve called for justice for 41 years . . . there is too much blood crying from the ground from those veterans who have died so we could live better . . . If they wanted to kill them all, then let them all stand trial together.”

Killen needs some company in that prison cell.

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