Philadelphia is a small town of 7,300 that is just over half white, just under half black and the rest Choctaw Indian. It sits ninety-eight miles northeast of Jackson and sixty northwest of Meridian, but is actually on the road to nowhere. Ronald Reagan chose the town for his first major campaign speech in the 1980 presidential campaign--appealing to racist Confederate nostalgia with a call for states' rights. Philadelphia's grim racial history put it on the map. But the faded shop fronts and low income levels (one in four families lives in poverty) suggest its grim economic present could just as soon wipe it off again.
Discussing the situation in the days before the trial began, a few people, like Barney Shephard, spoke up for Killen and said that the Mississippi Freedom Summer was a federally backed incursion masterminded by President John F. Kennedy. "The guy has been a good neighbor to me," he said of Killen. "He's 80 years old. And now to bring this up, after forty years, is beyond me." Few were as candid or as conspiratorial as Shephard. The rest of the town seemed to have settled on the notion that justice should be done. But they differed, crucially, on what justice actually means and what it could achieve. And like much else in the town, from where you live to where you worship, these differences fall almost exclusively along racial lines.
Over at Peggy's, a soul food restaurant-cum-living room just off the town's main square, you sit where you can, serve yourself when you're ready and leave your money in a basket on your way out. Here the trial had gone from being a decades-long taboo to a frequent subject of debate. "For twenty or thirty years nobody really talked about it, and then boom," said Anne, 24, a white waitress at Peggy's. "Now everybody talks about it." Anne grew up in Union, just fifteen miles away, but says she knew nothing about the murders until eight or nine months ago, when she saw the film Mississippi Burning, which is loosely based on the failed investigation into the murders. "It just about tore my heart out. If he did it, he deserves to be punished, that's only right.... But I don't think they should have brought it back up. It is going to cause more problems in town. A lot has changed since then. You didn't see blacks and whites mingle then. You do now. This is a new generation. This could cause more problems."
Hope Jones, a 25-year-old African-American teacher at the local school, is part of the same generation but could not disagree more. "We just want to see justice done," she said. "If he's innocent, fine, but we want whoever did it. This could turn ugly.... It could be a racial thing, but it's not. White people should want justice done also."
Along with the few local whites like Posey who have long campaigned for prosecutions in the case, several others have come around in recent years. Sitting under a huge picture of Ronald and Nancy Reagan's visit to the Neshoba County Fair in the 1980s, Jim Prince, editor of the Neshoba Democrat, explained that he used to be against reopening the case but gradually came to see that the town could not move on without some resolution. Philadelphia would benefit, he said, because the trial would be the "outcome of doing the right thing. There would be some vindication, some redemption, some soul-cleansing. It will be the atonement, really, for this old sin. We have only got the legal system to go by. That's all we've got." And if there cannot be redemption, then Prince hopes there can at least be remuneration. "It's a captivating story," he says. "The dark of night, the Ku Klux Klan, you know, it's got all the elements for great drama, but it's a true story and it's a sad story.... I tell people if they can't be behind the call for justice because it's the right thing to do--and that's first and foremost--then they need to do it 'cause it's good for business."