June 21, 1964:
J.E. Chaney, Mickey Schwerner, Andy Goodman were murdered in Mississippi.
June 21, 2005:
Edgar Ray Killen was convicted of manslaughter in their deaths.
Most Americans who “know” anything about the “Mississippi Burning” murders generally do so because of the movie. I grant you that “Mississippi Burning” is an exciting, well acted, brilliantly shot film. As a piece of historical cinema, it is remarkable in its ability to get almost every single fact wrong. The director, Alan Parker, defended it, saying, ” I am not making a documentary.” Granted. And granted that legal restrictions prevented him from using some real names. But the average audience that watches the film comes away with the notion that black people in Mississippi were disorganized and disunified.
This willful ignorance desecrates the memory of Medgar Evers, James Farmer, James Meredith, Aaron Henry, Clyde Kennard, Raylwani Branch, Joyce & Dorie Ladner, and so many others–so many brave African-Americans who had spent a hard decade organizing resistance to Mississippi apartheid. They did so at the risk of their freedom, their families, and their lives. To watch “Mississippi Burning,” one gets the impression that black Mississippians were confused, ignorant and unable to protect themselves. As if NAACP did not exist. As if CORE and SNCC were not there. As if Freedom Summer never happened.
Just as ludicrously, the film portrays the FBI as the heroes of the Civil Rights movement.
The FBI investigation into Mississippi Burning WAS superb. The lead investigators, Procter and Sullivan, did a superb job, as did the myriad of agents who flooded the State. However, the film loses all sense of context in this regard. FBI director Hoover had to be bullied, cajoled, and browbeaten by LBJ before he would commit FBI resources to solving the crime.
When I guided my students who worked on the reopening of the case, I intentionally did not allow them to watch the movie. I am not sure whether or not any of them ever did watch it after we finished. We got to know the Chaney and Goodman families very well, and deeply appreciated the support of Mickey Schwerner’s brother, David. J.E., Mickey, and Andy were real people to us.
We knew (and love) their families. We met their friends. Whenever people approach me when I am public speaking on the case and they indicate they knew one or more of the Mississippi Burning three, I always ask them, “What was J.E. like as a person?” “Tell me a story about Mickey.” “What kind of a friend was Andy?” Neighbors, schoolmates and friends, fellow Freedom Summer volunteers or just nodding acquaintances, they all seem anxious to talk about J.E., Mickey, and Andy.
I’ve been regaled by stories about J.E. teaching his brother to drive, Mickey’s performing at children’s birthday parties in New York, Andrew’s acting and charm and intelligence. When I speak about Mississippi Burning, I always tell some of those stories.
In “Mississippi Burning,” J.E., Mickey, and Andy are seen as anonymous victims. They are never given any names. The FBI agent refers to them merely as “the boys.”
In the end credits of Mississippi Burning, J.E. is referred to as “Black Passenger.”
It is as if J.E. Chaney, a proud, smart, and dedicated man who risked his life on a daily basis to earn a measure of equality in a state ruled by racism was merely a bystander to the civil rights struggle. A passenger. No more. How insulting. And how reminiscent of the way in which African-Americans were depersonalized by the Ku Klux Klan.
Those of us who care deeply, not just about “Mississippi Burning,” but about history, need to remember the deeply felt humanity of those who spoke truth to power.