Edgar Ray Killen, a white ordained Baptist minister known as “The Preacher,” was arrested on Thursday at his home in Neshoba county in the southern state.

Mr Killen appeared in court on Friday handcuffed and in an orange jump suit.

Mr Killen is the first person to be charged with the murders on June 21, 1964 of James Chaney, a 21-year-old black man from Mississippi, and Andrew Goodman, 20, and Michael Schwerner, 24, both white men from New York.

All had gone to Neshoba County to teach blacks about voting rights.

They disappeared after going to investigate a fire at a church used by blacks.

The three were detained by the deputy sheriff and after being released in the middle of the night were caught by Klu Klux Klan members.

Their bodies were found in August 1964 in a muddy ditch.

The murders sparked an outpouring of national support for the civil rights movement in the southern states. They also formed the backdrop to the 1988 Hollywood movie “Mississippi Burning.”

Carolyn Goodman, the 88-year-old mother of Andrew Goodman, told reporters: “This has been a long time coming, but it was definitely worth the wait. I knew in my heart this would happen eventually. It just had to be. I feel so relieved.”

Larry Myers, the sheriff of Neshoba county, said other people could also be charged. On top of Killen, seven people suspected of involvement in the killings are said to be still alive.

Many activists have joined the families of the dead men in welcoming the new case.

“I was delighted to hear the news,” said Congressman John Lewis of Georgia, who was an activist with the three dead men in the 1960s. “I don’t know why it took so long. It is so sad that it took more than 40 years.”

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