Past and present in Mississippi

August 5, 2010

Brian Jones reviews a new documentary that examines the fallout of the 1964 murder of three civil rights workers in Neshoba County, Miss.

WHEN RONALD Reagan first campaigned for the presidency back in 1980, his very first stop was the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi. A monochromatic crowd--several thousand strong--cheered on Candidate Reagan as he told them, "I believe in states' rights."

Reagan, launching his campaign with a thinly veiled appeal to white supremacy, couldn't have been ignorant of the significance of the location. Neshoba County was where three young civil rights workers--Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner--lost their lives in the summer of 1964.

The new film Neshoba: The Price of Freedom explores the struggle of the town's residents to grapple with this history. That, and the quest for some kind of "justice" on the part of the three young boys' surviving family members comprise the film's scope.

The summer of 1964 was, of course, "Freedom Summer," when the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee organized northern college students to travel to Mississippi to challenge Jim Crow segregation. It was a dangerous mission, but when, in the first few days, three students went missing, the peril became all too real.

Edgar Ray Killen following his trial for his part in the murder of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner
Edgar Ray Killen following his trial for his part in the murder of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner (First Run Features)

The disappearance of civil rights workers wasn't uncommon in Mississippi. In fact, the FBI's search for the three boys turned up nine other bodies.

When the three were found, autopsies revealed that Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner had been shot to death. James Chaney, who was African American, had several broken bones and other signs of torture. But because the other two of the three murdered activists were white meant that the case caught national attention.

Thus, for people of a certain age, the very names "Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner" are bound to evoke powerful emotions. Neshoba recounts this history, but with an eye to its impact on the boys' immediate family members--and later, on the town of Philadelphia, Miss., where they were murdered.

Only the coldest heart could watch unmoved as Andrew Goodman's elderly mother, Carolyn Goodman, recounts the last time she saw her son alive. It seems that Rita Schwerner, Michael Schwerner's widow, has lost none of her passion for fighting racism in the 40 years since her husband died.

And then there's the riveting footage of a very young Ben Chaney (who also contributed extensive interviews to the film), his face soaked in tears, belting "We Shall Overcome" at his brother's funeral.

BUT THIS film is not so much about the past as it is about the present. Or rather, it explores the tension between the two. For while it is widely accepted that the events of 1964 were "unfortunate" or "regrettable," as many residents confess, the people of Neshoba are not of one mind on what should be done to make things right.

On the one side, there are Black people and some whites who organized themselves into the "Philadelphia Coalition" to seek justice for the families of Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner.

It is certainly heartwarming to see white residents and Black residents stand together and call for justice in this case. But what would "justice" even look like?

In 2005, the district attorney was able to put together enough evidence to indict one man--Edgar Ray Killen--for his role in the boys' murders. Filmmakers Micki Dickoff and Tony Pagano were granted "unprecedented" access to Killen, and so at a certain point, Neshoba takes a great deal of time investigating the mind of this unrepentant racist.

"I don't deny that I am a segregationist," Killen says casually. He maintains his innocence throughout, but while the evidence against him is circumstantial, it is certainly convincing. Neshoba County in 1964 was the kind of place where people bragged about killing civil rights workers--in this case, even bragging on radio. That a self-identified Klan leader showed up to Killen's trial to provide "moral support" probably didn't help. "It's not about hate," he tells a reporter outside the courthouse, "it's about love."

Whether Killen pulled one of the triggers himself, or helped to organize the murders is not clear, and the amount of time Neshoba gives to Killen's on-camera interviews doesn't clarify the matter. We see shots of Killen relaxing at home, Killen driving his truck, Killen cutting wood--make that several shots of Killen cutting wood.

Perhaps this is all in the interest of fairness--giving the devil his due, or something to that effect--but Killen is an uncomplicated man, and aside from a few laughs at his expense, these interviews aren't particularly revelatory.

At the same time, Neshoba makes it clear that the organization of racist violence goes far beyond Killen. A common elite view of racism is that it's the cherished folly of the poor and ignorant. Dickoff and Pagano, however, trace the architecture of white supremacy to the top of society. They show how the Klan really carried out the perspectives laid out by the more respectable Citizens' Councils.

Killen brags about his relationship with top officials in the Democratic Party. "Senator [James] Eastland was like a second father to me," he says. Smash cut to Sen. Eastland bragging to an adoring crowd about the 100-plus civil rights bills that came before his committee. "And guess how many got out of committee?" he boasts. "Zero!"

While it's easy for a Northern audience to chuckle at Southern backwardness, the Northern chattering classes did (and do) their fare share of racism-promoting. Neshoba treats us, for example, to a professor at New York City's Columbia University explaining why the "Negro cannot do abstract thinking."

The filmmakers don't seem to have a hard time finding people in Neshoba County who think that putting Killen on trial is going too far. Several (white) residents seem to think that Killen is a good man, that the Coalition folks are "white trash" or "outsiders," and that the whole thing is best left in the past.

When the jury at first comes back hung, Coalition members are shocked. But perhaps that moment is best viewed as a metaphor for the state of race relations in the town.

The jury's ultimate verdict--guilty--is bittersweet. Killen gets manslaughter--not murder (the price of shifting a single juror). But more importantly, Ben Chaney and others express disappointment that the district attorney was only able to gather enough evidence to indict one man.

Certainly, without the efforts of Carolyn Goodman, Rita Schwerner, Fannie Lee Chaney (James' mother), Ben Chaney and the good people who formed the Philadelphia Coalition, even this limited victory would not have been possible.

I can say, without spoiling the very end of the film, that the final credit sequence serves as a reminder that the price of freedom is high, indeed. The families of Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner may have received some measure of justice, but as Neshoba makes clear, the work of those three boys is unfinished.

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