Eighty-year-old Edgar Ray Killen received 20 years gaol each for the killings of Michael Schwerner, 24, James Chaney, 21, and Andy Goodman, 20.
In passing sentence, Neshoba County Court Judge Marcus Gordon said “each life has value. Each life is equally as valuable as the other life and I have taken that into consideration. The three lives should absolutely be respected and treated equally.”
Seated in a wheelchair and wearing a yellow prison jumpsuit, Killen showed little emotion at the words.
“This is a great day for Mississippi and a great day for the voice of the African American community and those white people in Neshoba County who stand for justice,” said Ben Chaney, the younger brother of James Chaney.
The sentencing came two days after Killen’s conviction for manslaughter which fell on the 41st anniversary of the victims’ deaths.
The three had been involved in a civil rights drive to register African American voters during the so-called ‘Freedom Summer’ when they were ambushed outside the town of Philadelphia and then beaten and shot, before being buried in a dam.
Killen was accused of organising the Klansmen who took part in the attack, although he himself was not present.
Killen, a part-time Baptist preacher, has denied any connection with the killings and is the first person to face murder charges over the deaths.
Jurors were asked to consider the lesser charge of manslaughter against Killen after the jury became deadlocked during deliberations of murder charges.
In 1967 Federal Court tried 18 men, including Killen, on charges of depriving the three victims their civil rights.
Seven of the accused were convicted serving sentences of between three and 10 years imprisonment.
However, Killen was set free after a hung jury was unable to reach a verdict.
Killen’s lawyer James McIntyre said an appeal was being planned.
Killen, who suffers osteoarthritis, will be held at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Rankin County where the man Killen’s defence blames for the deaths is also serving time.
Former Klan Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers is behind bars on a life sentence for the 1966 firebombing that killed civil rights activist Vernon Dahmer.
Prison officials said Killen would be kept in isolation for his own protection.
“It’s a kind of a race issue in that our (prison) population is 70 percent black,” Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps said.