Despite Killen’s Conviction, Justice Unresolved as Long as Systemic Racism Exists

This op-ed was originally published by The Clarion-Ledger on January 18, 2018.

Edgar Ray Killen, one of the men who orchestrated the murder of my brother Andrew Goodman, and two other civil rights workers, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner, died in the Mississippi State Penitentiary on Thursday, Jan. 11, six days before his 93rd birthday. Killen and his Ku Klux Klan associates killed Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner in Neshoba County, Mississippi, on June 21, 1964, simply because these young civil rights workers were trying to register African Americans to vote and believed that democracy should work for all people. It was 44 days before the FBI found their bodies, buried in a Philadelphia, Mississippi, earthen dam.

Killen was the only man, out of the 18 accused, who was ever tried for murder or manslaughter in what the FBI referred to as the ‘Mississippi Burning’ killings. The other members of the KKK got off of the murder charge scot-free and lived the rest of their natural lives having committed murder without a murder conviction of any sort.

Although Killen’s 2005 conviction led to a moment of healing for the Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner families, as well as our country, it is justice unresolved. The fundamental problem of systemic racism in America that led to their deaths continues to thrive in our country today. As recently as this past week, our president, the highest elected official in America, made inexcusable, racially charged remarks about immigrants of color from the Caribbean and Africa, which felt like language reminiscent of what the KKK might have said.

This story has been repeated too many times throughout our country’s history. Millions of African Americans have been enslaved, lynched, unreasonably incarcerated, and murdered at the hands of white Americans, virtually all with impunity at various times in our history with the tacit approval of politicians and their constituencies.

What is wrong with a country that promises “law and order” on the one hand, but whose track record shows quite the opposite? It is a stunning reality. While many Americans believe that murder at the hands of white terrorists, like the Ku Klux Klan, is an idea reminiscent of the 1960s, sadly they are wrong.

Modern-day collateral murder does not only include a white supremacist shooting nine African Americans in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, or driving into demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia. It also includes state legislators and governors, who deny their constituents access to affordable health insurance and livable wages. People without health insurance have a much higher probability of death from disease that could easily be treated. Public policy denying available health insurance is a form of state-sanctioned murder. The entities controlling public policies, which keep the federal minimum wage at $7.25 an hour, is a modern-day form of slave wages. At that rate, an individual working full time, 2,000 hours per year, would earn an annual income of $14,500. Who can survive on that, let alone move up the economic ladder or create better opportunities for their children? It is just another shameful example of state-sanctioned denial of the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

We must do better! The time for silence and sitting on the sidelines is over. People who remain silent, for whatever reason, perpetuate systemic racism, bad public policies and a “back to the past” road ahead for America.

One thing I am certain of is that my brother Andrew’s story will not die with Edgar Ray Killen. It will continue to serve as a painful reminder of how far we have come and how far we still have to go. The legacy of Andrew Goodman will continue to inspire the next generation of young volunteers and leaders who will continue Andy’s legacy, and advocate for equality and justice for all regardless of race, color or creed. Only after we face and heal our racist past will we finally begin to deliver on the promise that all people are created equal and celebrate, not fear, the diversity that makes our country great.

About the Author

David Goodman is the brother of Andrew Goodman, the President of The Andrew Goodman Foundation, and a member of its Board of Trustees.