- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Florence Mars, 83, civil rights advocate

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Florence Mars, whose work on a book about the 1964 slayings of three civil rights workers won praise from many but made her the target of the Ku Klux Klan, died April 23, having suffered from Bell’s palsy and other ailments. She was 83.

Miss Mars was one of the few Philadelphia, Miss., residents to cooperate with FBI agents who investigated the disappearance of three civil rights workers during the summer of 1964.

Her book, “Witness in Philadelphia,” was published in 1977 and chronicled the turbulent struggle to register black voters and the brutal slayings of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman.

The men were detained on a traffic violation in 1964 after investigating the burning of a black church. The Klan ambushed them when they were released from the Neshoba County Jail a few hours later. They were beaten and shot, and their bodies were buried in an earthen dam.

The killings also inspired the 1988 film “Mississippi Burning” and were the center of the highly publicized trial of a former Klan leader last year.

“She had guts enough to stand up against the Klan, which few people would do,” said longtime friend Gerald “Boots” Howell. “She was even asked to leave the Methodist Church. They had a strong Klan element here that did not want her to teach [Sunday school].”

Mr. Howell, 84, said the Klan set fire to Miss Mars’ barn in the late 1960s after she became publicly supportive of the civil rights movement. Mr. Howell and his wife, Millie, were among Miss Mars’ few lifelong friends in a town that often ostracized whites who supported the equal rights movement.

Though Miss Mars’ book was written before anyone faced state murder charges in the case, the violent and disturbing legacy of the civil rights slayings lived on, and so did the pursuit of justice.

Edgar Ray Killen, a former Klansman and part-time preacher, was convicted of manslaughter last year for orchestrating the slayings. His June 21 conviction came exactly 41 years to the day that the men were killed.

Killen, 81, was sentenced to 60 years and is in a Mississippi prison.

“She was kind of the outspoken conscience of Philadelphia, Miss., in the turbulent times,” said Mark Howell, Miss Mars’ godson. “She never backed down from her principles.”

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