In 1964, propelled by the pending Civil Rights Act, hundreds of inspired northern civil rights activists invaded the South to persuade local blacks to register for the vote. The legion of unwelcome outsiders descending upon Dixie inflamed many southerners who, while conceding the nation-wide legislative power of Congress, held steadfast that voter registration was nobody's business but their own. This quasi-Confederate attitude turned into gruesome action when three such activists mysteriously disappeared late one June evening on a backroad between the two small Mississippi towns of Meridian and Philadelphia.
In June, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and its affiliate, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), launched an ambitious campaign throughout the South to conduct adult literacy classes and assist blacks in moving through the voter registration process. Mississippi was designated to receive the thrust of "Freedom Summer," as it came to be called. There was no tougher battleground than the Magnolia State, both racially and economically. It was the most downtrodden state in the nation, historically notorious among the Deep South alliance for its refusal to accept black equality in any manner whatsoever, not the least of which was the right to vote. Only five percent of blacks living in Mississippiwhich comprised over 40 percent of the state's populationhad managed to overcome the poll taxes, unfair literacy tests, and threats of terror to register for the vote. It was the lowest such percentage in the country.
Mississippi's post-Reconstruction tradition of terror to maintain black subservience was unparalleled. Between 1880 and 1940, nearly 600 blacks were lynched in Mississippi. No measure of justice was exacted on behalf of the victims in any of these incidentsnot only were there no convictions or indictments, but astonishingly, not even a single arrest by state law enforcement officials! In other words, so brazen was Mississippi's refusal to respect civil rights that the state made not even the faintest attempt to camouflage its loathsome actions. Over such a period of time, when so many slayings took place, it's almost impossible to believe that there wouldn't have been a few token arrests, perhaps an indictment here and there, maybe even a couple guilty verdicts with suspended sentences to veil, however thinly, Mississippi's approval of torture and murder to maintain white supremacy. As Mississippi's methodology proceeded unchecked, blacks were subjected to exalted levels of intimidationloss of jobs for fabricated reasons, unjustified insurance cancellations, sudden jumps in loan interest rates, immediate mortgage foreclosures, and when all else failed, downright violence and unmerciful cruelty.
Among the nearly 1,000 Freedom Summer volunteers were Michael (Mickey) Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, both white New Yorkers, and James Earl Chaney, a black from Mississippi. Schwerner and Chaney were experienced CORE field workers; Goodman was a relative newcomer, though he had previously participated in some civil rights demonstrations in Washington and New York City. All three boys were in their early 20s.
Participants were repeatedly warned of the impending dangers awaiting them in Mississippi. One of the leaders of the SNCC counseled the volunteers: "Mississippi is unreal when you're not there, and the rest of the country is unreal when you are." Another SNCC official issued a much more austere description of the raw conditions in the state: "There's not even a sharp line between living and dying. It's just a thin fuzz."
Sam Bowers, Jr., Imperial Wizard of the White Knights, the most predacious Klan chapter in the entire South, called on members to resist the Freedom Summer workers: "The events which will occur in Mississippi this summer may well determine the fate of Christian civilization for centuries to come." Bowers urged "counterattacks" against "selected individual targets." As a precautionary measure, all workers were instructed to phone their respective CORE offices at regular intervals.
On June 16, hooded White Knights turned Bowers's perscription for war into actual bloodshed. They attacked the Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in Longdale, a short distance east of Philadelphia. The Klansmen were reacting to reports that the church would host a "freedom school" whereby the congregation would partake in classesliteracy, arithmetic, politics, and historyas well as the county voter registration drive. The assailants were actually hunting for a white northern activist known as "Goatee" who had met previously with church members to initiate the campaign and was believed to be present that day to organize further. The targeted activist's absence did not dissuade the rabid Kluxers from beating several of the parishioners and burning the church to the ground. If the catch could not be made that day, at least some bait could be placed.
The Longdale church arson was not an isolated incident. Some violence had already occurred. There was plenty more to come. Over the summer, project workers suffered 1,000 arrests, 80 beatings, 35 shootings, and 30 bombings of homes, churches, and schools. But the most despicable action occurred just a few days after the Mount Zion Church attack.
On June 20, Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney left the training center at Oxford, Ohio. No doubt during the 16-hour drive to Meridian they talked about the good and the badthe Senate's approval of solid civil rights legislation a day earlier and the recent attack on the church in Longdale. The boys pulled into Meridian during the early morning hours of June 21, weary from travel, but anxious to begin their work.
After limited sleep and hasty breakfast, Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney proceeded from Meridian to nearby Longdale, where they surveyed the charred remains of the church and questioned witnesses about the incident. On their way back to Meridian, while passing through Philadelphia at about 3:00 in the afternoon, their blue Ford station wagon was stopped by Neshoba County Sheriff's Chief Deputy Cecil Ray Price with assistance, according to some accounts, from a State Patrol car. The trio was arrested on a flimsy speeding charge. When the activists failed to call in by late afternoon (they were denied use of the telephone), the Meridian CORE office suspected foul play and telephoned the jail to inquire about them. Whoever answered the phone (reports differ) denied any knowledge of the boys' whereabouts. The jailhouse was so confined that almost certainly the boys would have overheard the conversation and if not worried up until then, now had good reason to be anxious. At 6:00 that evening, the SNCC state headquarters in Jackson contacted the FBI and the Mississippi Highway Patrol.
The speeding charge was nothing more than a guise. While Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney were detained in jail, area Klansmen were busy making bigger plans. Released from the county jail late that night (they were fined $20 for the speeding violation), the trio drove out of town toward Meridian on secluded Highway 19. They would never make it to Meridian.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation immediately took charge of the case, assigning it the code name of MIBURN. A horde of FBI agents searched the area and quizzed the local folk for clues to the whereabouts of the missing activists. Some 400 sailors from the naval air station at Meridian were brought in to fish the heighboring lakes and comb the countryside for the bodies. The FBI dragged 50 miles of the Pearl River and marched in columns through swamps teeming with venomous water moccasins, pesky chiggers, and biting mosquitoes. The search crews discovered a number of corpses belonging to lynching victims long missing (including that of a 14-year-old boy, wearing a CORE shirt, found floating in the Big Black River), but not those Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney.
The local citizens stonewalled the FBI. Some grumbled about the alleged murders being nothing more than a CORE publicity stunt. There were murmurs that the three rabble-rousers probably got what they deserved. Still others said they "heard" that the boys had just decided to take off and go elsewhere. Certainly there were a few who sympathized with the victims, but it was common knowledge that to offer any assistance in the investigation would have invited trouble from the Klan, and everyone could plainly see what that might result from that. FBI agents conducted 1,000 interviews. No one, white or black, would break the silence.
The opening scene of Mississippi Burning shows the Klan murders of three young civil rights activists on a dusty Mississippi road cloaked by darkness of night. The cool, calculated manner in which the redneck murder squadled by a local deputy sheriffcommits the crimes is almost as chilling as the murders themselves. That much of the movie is true. What follows is considerable Hollywood free-lancing. The film casts Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe as FBI agents Anderson and Ward, respectively. Hackman is a former Mississippi sheriff; Dafoe is a young northern moralist. Together, the pair doggedly pursue the perpetrators, all the time struggling to fashion a workable arena for one agent's firsthand knowledge of harsh southern reality and the other's spirited Kennedyesque idealism.
As one might guess, Mississippi Burning created some controversy. Surprisingly, some of it came from the black community. In the film's opening scene, the two whites (presumed to be Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman) occupy the front seat of the station wagon while the black passenger (presumed to be James Earl Chaney) rides in the back seat. In 1964, Chaney was behind the wheel, owing to his familiarity with the area. This discrepancy, which at first seems but a minor factual flaw, is somewhat indicative of how the movie portrays much of the black citizenryas bewildered prey to all the arsons and beatings and lynchings that fill the screen. The thinkers and doers seem to be mostly white, villains and heroes alike. In reality, the South was full of black protagonists. Throughout the summer of 1964, rather than bow to the widespread terrorism of the KKK, Mississippi blacks resolutely met at area "freedom schools" like the Mount Zion Church in Longdale. One year after the incident, 85,000 black Mississippians courageously cast "freedom ballots" to show their determination to exercise the vote if given the oppurtunity.
The movie would have its viewers believe the case was solved because of southern integrity revived by a sympathetic female soul (the deputy sheriff's wife, of all people, provides crucial information to authorities) coupled with extra-legal pressure levied by the FBI (a private black operative is whisked into town, in under cover of night, to goad the mayor into betraying the killers). It makes a good Hollywood film, but it just did not happen that way.
There was a guilty white conscience in Philadelphia that summer, but it was not the deputy's wife. It was Florence Mars, a well-to-do white women who was one of the few Philadelphians willing to testify against the Klan before the federal grand jury. (Although she did not provide assistance during the investigation, she did speak out against the murders, for which Mars was dismissed from her Sunday school teaching job.) After the trial, she was subjected to bouts of harassment by both the Klan and local law enforcement officers. In 1977, Mars authored a book entitled Witness in Philadelphia which likened the silence of a southern community embroiled in its devilish work to that of Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany during World War II.
And, no unscrupulous thug was imported to coax a confession for FBI agents. Instead, it was the fear and greed of a Klan member that helped the Bureau solve the case. In depicting an FBI force so zealous in its defense of black justice that it resorts to vigilante tactics, the movie creates the impression that the FBI agents behaved like Agent Anderson/Hackman, rampaging without constraint, like their enemy Kluxers, through the Deep South during the 1960s. In truth, the FBI followed policy, as Agent Ward/Dafoe would have preferred.
Finally, after 44 exhausting days, an anonymous Klan informer led authorities to the earthern dam where the three bodies were buried. By now, their tomb was already grassed over due to the heavy July rains. The Klan informant received a $30,000 payoff to do so. It marked the first time in history the FBI had officially offered a reward for information.
Four months later, the sheriff's deputy and 20 others were taken into custody by the FBI. Since murder charges were not then possible under federal law, the onus of prosecution therefore fell on the State of Mississippi. Claiming lack of sufficient evidence and unreliable witnesses, the governor refused to bring such charges, even though FBI officials offered to submit their entire batch of findings and testimony to the state. Exasperated, the FBI had no choice but to settle for the lesser crime of depriving the victims of their civil rights by murdering them. A federal grand jury convened by the Justice Department handed down indictments against 18, deputy included. Even then, Mississippi tried to buck the federal government. The district court judge was William Howard Cox, an ardent segregationsit who had once likened blacks to chimpanzees. He reduced the charge to a misdemeanor, but that action was reversed by the Supreme Court.
After three years of complicated legal maneuvering, seven of those arrested were found guilty of conspiring to deny "life or liberty without due process" of Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney. They were given sentences ranging from three to ten years. The verdict marked the first time ever an all-white jury in Mississippi convicted white defendants in a civil rights case. Still, it was a compromise decision. The low number of convictions (well under half the defendants) and relatively mild sentences made the whole affair bittersweet. Among those who eluded a guilty verdict were several individuals who were undoubtedly involved. To believe otherwise is simply naive. In regard to the sentences, the judge remarked, "They killed one nigger, one Jew, and a white manI gave them all what I thought they deserved." By the time Mississippi Burning showed in theaters, the entire bunch had been released from prison (none served more than six years), almost all of them returning to gainful employment in their respective communities. Over the years, there was no sincere expression of remorse by any of the conspirators. Most of them remained tight-lipped and when they did speak up their comments were belligerent.
The legal injustice was somewhat vindicated four decades later when the State of Mississippi decided to reopen the cases against the surviving conspirators in the Freedom Summer slayings. As a result, Edgar Ray "Preacher" Killen, then 79 years old, was finally convicted of murder. Killen was among the original group indicted, but a hung jury enabled him to escape justice. Although somewhat disappointing because the State had initially planned to prosecute others connected with the 1964 executions, Killen was the most conspicuous of several culprits who were never convicted but surely were involved. The mothers of Goodman and Chaney, Chaney's brother Ben, and Schwerner's widow were all alive to know the outcome.
In a demonstration of solidarity, the parents of Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney asked that their sons be buried together. Their request denied because Mississippi state law prohibited integrated cemeteries, Chaney was buried apart from his two comrades. A memorial to the slain activists now stands in the yard of the Longdale church, rebuiltin bricktwo years after it was burned. Mississippi Burning does not at any point mention the names of the three real-life heroes (the closing credits identify the cast members as "Goatee," "Passenger," and "Black Passenger") though the film clearly pays them homage.
Mississippi Burning garnered seven Academy Award nominations, including best picture, in 1989. Hackman and Dafoe, two of Hollywood's finest, do not disappoint. The movie tugs at a host of emotions, and in the end the good guys winsort of. But viewers must realize that mixed with the film's accurate portrayal of southern racism and dominance of the rural South by the repugnant Ku Klux Klan is vivid drama which markedly deviates from factual events. The movie's scripted departure from reality provides its theater audience with a more absolving, more gratifying version of history than what actually transpired. In other words, viewers see what they wish would have happened in solving the lurid murders, rather than what did happen. David Halberstam, who covered the Freedom Summer for the New York Times, was especially critical of the movie. He called it "Mississippi False." Simply, Mississippi Burning is fiction based on a historical event, but laced with just enough bits and pieces of genuine history to make it a meaningful learning device if viewed in an academically responsible climate. Watch it for what it is, not for what it isn't. The movie is rated R for graphic violence and occasional rough language.
Select the best response for each item according to information learned by viewing Mississippi Burning, as well as through lecture and assigned reading.
Choose one of the following. Your response should be 3-5 typed, double-spaced pages and include a list of sources used (minimum of two required).