John F. Sugg | Mississippi Lawyer: What's White Is Right

Friday, 17 June 2005 05:26 by: Anonymous

    Mississippi Lawyer: What's White Is Right
    By John F. Sugg
    t r u t h o u t | Report

    Friday 17 June 2005

James McIntyre, one of Killen's attorneys.
(Photo: Kate Medley / Jackson Free Press)
    Edgar Ray Killen - preacher, sawmill operator and Ku Klux Klansman - is on trial in Philadelphia, Mississippi, for a heinous crime, the murders of three civil rights workers 41 years ago.

    It's a case full of ironies - Killen, for example, in 1965 presided at the dual funeral for the parents of the man who is now the judge in the case, Marcus Gordon. Ten years later, Gordon was the prosecutor in Neshoba County, and he convicted Killen and sent him to jail for five months for making a threatening phone call.

    Another amusing nugget is that Killen has long boasted that he'd never be convicted for the murders. He cites the popular, if whispered, support he and the Klan have allegedly enjoyed. But, just as the Klan claims to be an "invisible empire," so, too, are his loyalists.

    Oh, sure, a couple of sad-sack Klansmen, one from Cordele, Georgia, popped up like malevolent jacks-in-the-box for the opening of the trial. They provided a bit of titillation for reporters, who dutifully trailed them around with cameras and recorders whirring.

    However, it's been as hard to find bona-fide average-Joe supporters of Killen as it is to find a little cool air in this summer-come-early Mississippi June. Most local folks, even if they think the trial is ripping open old wounds, shrug when asked about Killen.

    And then on Wednesday (June 15) I had a lucky double hit.

    First, I ran into James G. McIntyre, one of Killen's attorneys. OK, he has to support his client, but McIntyre is clearly a believer. He represented Neshoba County Sheriff Lawrence Rainey in 1967, when he and 18 others were tried under federal conspiracy laws for the murders.

    "I won that case," McIntyre says. "I damn sure did win it." Rainey was one of nine acquitted. Seven others were convicted. Three, including Killen, had a hung jury.

    I strolled with McIntyre around the Neshoba courthouse. He described himself as "just an old Mississippi lawyer, that's what I am."

    The Jackson lawyer has a florid red face, squashed down with years so that he resembles a blow-dried bullfrog. His speech is a raspy Mississippi drawl, and he is armored in a fiercely pressed lawyer's power suit. He doesn't show the tiniest drip of sweat in the unrelenting heat.

    "This is a sad, sad, very sad day for the state of Mississippi," he says. "Mississippi should go forward, not backward. But Mississippi has seen fit to come in with charges against an old man."

    With a bit of populist swagger, McIntyre decries the "selective enforcement" he sees in the Killen case. "Why doesn't the state protect us from real crime, rather than persecute an old man. Make no mistake, this is not a prosecution. It is a persecution.

    "I've been robbed with a gun held to my head," he continues, decibels increasing in his best jury voice. "I've had four burglaries in one month. I'd like the state of Mississippi to tell me how this case is going to reduce any of the real crime that happens every day."

    McIntyre also says he's worried about Mississippi's reputation. "How does the rest of the world perceive us" because of the trial? "The reality is that we're doing fine. Why open up all of this old crap?"

    "Even worse for the state is if I win. And I think I have a good shot at winning. If I win, the world is going to perceive us as a bunch of racist devils."

    I poked and prodded at McIntyre until he showed a few cards from his defense strategy. He hopes to exclude from evidence the transcript of the 1967 federal trial. His argument will be that the trial was for conspiracy, and witnesses were cross-examined to determine facts in the murders. (On Thursday, June 16, Judge Gordon dismissed McIntyre's gambit to exclude the transcripts, as well as another motion that would have banned the prosecution from showing photos of the three slain men after their bodies were discovered under an earthen dam.)

Richard Barrett, an outspoken white supremacist, accused the three slain civil rights workers of being "communists."
(Photo: Kate Medley / Jackson Free Press)
    Later Wednesday, I ran into Richard Barrett, the paragon of Mississippi white supremacists. He was handing out his booklet, From Southern to American around the courthouse. The screed argues that blacks should be airlifted back to Africa, among other innovative solutions to social ills. Oh, despite his Southern nationalism, he's a New Yorker by birth, but what the hell.

    Barrett, when not championing the virtues of being white - he's a ubiquitous figure in the state's fringe politics - is a lawyer. From a distance, he looks the part. Closer, his suit is a little threadbare and needs dry cleaning. His tie is stained. But bright and shiny is a lapel pin - a cross with four sharp points, symbol of his "Nationalist Movement."

    "Killen asked me to represent him," Barrett says, "but I didn't think he was competent."

    I can't resist, and ask: Is that why he wanted you?"

    Barrett: "Hah!"

    Barrett also says that he would have put on a "political trial," and he didn't know if Killen would have allowed that.

    I ask Barrett to explain "political trial."

    "Take a choice," he replies. "It's either Watts and Detroit" - referring to race riots - "or Highway 515, peaceful farms and churches."

    State Road 515 is where the three civil rights workers - Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney - were murdered by the Klan. Barrett elaborated, contending the brief violence resulted in community tranquility. I rolled my eyes and said, "C'mon," and he retorted, "It's true."

    "Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney came here saying they wanted to register Negroes to vote," Barrett says. "What they really wanted was to run white people out of the county. They did that in Jackson, where I live. Last election, there wasn't anyone I could vote for."

    I ask: No one on the ballot?"

    Barrett: "No, I mean there were no white people on the ballot."

    As he walks away, he throws out a quicky: "They were not civil and they weren't right. They were communists and they were wrong."

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