Some in the national media and in the ranks of those for whom racial strife is a cottage industry chose to point to the fact that Edgar Ray Killen was convicted of three counts of manslaughter rather than murder as evidence that Mississippi is still mired in racial discord.

Call it what you will — murder, manslaughter, conspiracy, lynching, whatever — the bottom line is that on June 21, 1964, three young men were killed in Neshoba County because a lawless mob of Ku Klux Klansmen didn’t agree with their politics, their race and their religion.

Different visions

The world saw three idealistic young men trying to educate rural black Mississippians and help them register to vote.

The Klan saw “two Jews and a Negro.” They saw “communists.” They saw “outside agitators.”

What the Klan mob didn’t see were human beings whose lives were valuable.

On June 21, 2005, Edgar Ray Killen was convicted of three counts of manslaughter for his role in organizing those killings.

What message is the world to draw regarding what changed over that 41-year span of time in Mississippi? Or is there any message at all?

What does it all mean?

For Mississippians, if not for the world watching on television, the message actually sent in the Killen trial came at his sentencing by Eighth District Circuit Judge Marcus Gordon.

Gordon sentenced Killen — who had preached the funerals of both the judge’s mother and father — to the maximum sentence available of 60 years in prison. Given Killen’s age and poor health, that’s a life sentence without the probability of parole.

That sentence was handed to a man 80 years old who survived two broken legs in a logging accident in the last several weeks — a frail man who is clearly not in good health.

Gordon’s message in the sentence was clear — Killen’s crime was a major crime that demanded major punishment. The message sent, and for the most part received across the state, is that race-based crimes will no longer be winked at by local or state courts in Mississippi.

Gordon, as District Attorney Mark Duncan and Attorney General Jim Hood had done during the prosecution’s Monday closing arguments, made clear that Mississippi is no longer a playground for cowards who hide behind sheets and hoods and flaming crosses.

Delayed, not denied

As in the cases of the late Byron De La Beckwith (in the slaying of Medgar Evers) and that of Sam Bowers (in the slaying of Vernon Dahmer) before him, Killen came into the Neshoba County Courthouse smug and self-possessed that he would beat the rap as he had done in a 1967 federal trial.

He left in a yellow prison jumpsuit facing the rest of his life alone in a jail cell. In handing Killen the maximum sentence available, Gordon stated that Mississippi’s vision in 2005 is that “each life has value, each life is equally as valuable as the other life .”

Neshoba Countians have set about the hard work of racial reconciliation in the most glaring of spotlights. Killen’s conviction doesn’t rewrite history, but it provides a hopeful epilogue to that frightening history.

Would that the rest of America work as hard for as long to wash the stains of old hatreds and past sins away and work together to build a better future.

Perspective Editor Sid Salter is a Philadelphia native. Contact him at (601) 961-7084 or e-mail him at ssalter@ clarionledger.com.