September 17, 2005 -- Sixties voting rights advocate Birdia Keglar was murdered by Ku Klux Klansmen on her way home to Charleston, Mississippi after meeting with Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in Jackson.
Keglar's January 11, 1966 death and the murders of her best friend and then her youngest son have never been resolved or even investigated by law enforcement agencies - local, state or federal.
Susan Orr-Klopfer, author of a new book on civil rights in the Mississippi Delta, believes these three "cold case" murders should get the immediate attention of a new Unsolved Crimes Section of the Justice Department.
Under a measure approved Thursday by the U.S. Senate, the new office would target such pre-1970 racially motivated homicides that remain unsolved because of lax state and federal prosecution at the time they occurred.
The bill was inspired by recent efforts to reopen the case of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African American youngster who was murdered in 1955 while visiting relatives in the Delta.
"Young Till’s crime was whistling at a white woman while inside a small grocery store. For this, he was lynched and the men who admitted committing the crime went free.
"Birdia Keglar’s crime, 11 years later, was to advocate for voting rights. She and her friend Adlena Hamlett were driving home from Jackson after meeting with Senator Robert F. Kennedy to talk over civil rights issues. But their car was stopped in a small Delta town where they were kidnapped, tortured and murdered by Klansmen.
"Very likely, the Klansmen who killed Keglar and Hamlett were also highway patrolmen. Both women’s bodies were mutilated – both were decapitated and Hamlett’s arms were cleanly severed from her body," Klopfer said.
"Their deaths were attributed to a car wreck by officials. But the car disappeared along with Keglar’s briefcase and witnesses were threatened with murder if they did not remain quiet."
Three months later, after Keglar’s youngest son went to Washington D.C. trying to learn what happened to his mother, he was murdered.
"James Keglar was knocked unconscious and burned alive in his house. This happened hours after he was released from a Clarksdale, Mississippi jail on a bogus charge. He was expecting help from the FBI but it never came, according to his brother."
Klopfer’s book, "Where Rebels Roost, Mississippi Civil Rights Revisited," details these Mississippi Delta murders and dozens of others, including the lynching of young Till.
The book contains newly discovered information on several other Mississippi civil rights murders including "strong evidence that civil rights leader Medgar Evers was not murdered by Byron de la Beckwith who was finally convicted for the crime, but by a friend of Beckwith’s, another member of the Klan who was Beckwith’s superior," Klopfer said.
Klopfer lived in the Mississippi Delta in employee housing on the prison grounds of Parchman Penitentiary for two years while she researched and wrote her 680-page book that contains over 1,400 footnotes as well as names and information regarding nearly 1,000 black people who were lynched in the state – "a small representation of the racial murders and lynching that have taken place in Mississippi," Klopfer said.
Senator Jim Talent, R-Mo., sponsored Thursday’s legislation with Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn. The Senate voted by unanimous consent to add the measure to an appropriations bill that is expected to pass the Senate this week, according to Associated Press reports. The bill was introduced by Talent and Dodd in July after a Mississippi court sentenced former Klansman Edgar Ray Killen to 60 years in jail for the murders of three civil rights workers in 1964.
"There are 13 Klansmen mentioned in the book who are known to the FBI and still living in Mississippi who helped murder Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Robert Goodman. Yet no one has been prosecuted except for Preacher Killen who was not at the murder scene. Maybe some progress will finally come about because of this Senate bill," Klopfer said.
Klopfer said she feels closest to the Keglar and Hamlett murders, however. "These were two older, established Mississippi black women – Adlena Hamlett was 77-years-old and was a well-respected teacher for many years.
"Birdia Keglar was a business woman who was trying to start a local chapter of the NAACP. She was the first black person in her county to vote since Reconstruction following the Civil War. She was earlier represented in federal court by John Doar of the U.S. Department of Justice and was Doar’s first voting rights test case when he came into Mississippi after the election of President John F. Kennedy."
One of Adlena Hamlett’s granddaughters in August told Klopfer about going with Hamlett to the courthouse square as a child to request a ballot.
"Nina Zachery said the clerk tore up the ballot and ordered their departure. But Zachery’s grandmother said not to worry because she – Nina – would be able to vote one day, and that was all that mattered. Hamlett and Keglar were later hanged in effigy at the Tallahatchie Courthuse and were strongly warned by Klansmen to stop their voting rights activities."
Klopfer is the first journalist to write about Keglar and Hamlett. "I learned about this story from a nurse at Parchman whose wife was a relative of Mrs. Keglar. Very little was known about them and it took the entire two years to piece this story together – it was very complicated with numerous entanglements that reached from the Delta to Washington, D.C."
Klopfer also asserts it was significant that Sen. Edward Kennedy led off the questioning of Chief Justice nominee John Roberts on his Senate confirmation hearing this past week.
"Sen. Kennedy reminded Roberts that people died for the right to vote. Sen. Kennedy is concerned about reauthorization of the 1965 Voting Rights Act – and opposition to equal voting rights and other civil rights supplied the motives for all of the murders listed in this book."
Klopfer left Mississippi at the end of August and said she added newly discovered information to the book even as she was packing to leave.
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