Black Passenger – The Truth Behind “Mississippi Burning”

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 Who Is Mr X In The Mississippi Burning Case?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.”

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.

20 thoughts on “Black Passenger – The Truth Behind “Mississippi Burning”

  1. Jerry, I had no idea how deeply you were involved in one of the biggest civil rights murder investigations this country has known. Now I do and the respect I had for you is tinged with awe. Reporters like you are the reason we have a Pulitzer Prize. Thank you for all you’ve done and all you continue to do for the cause of civil rights in America.

    • Mary Ann,

      I agree with you %100. Jerry Mitchell is one of the greatest investigative reporters of all time and should have won the Pultizer long ago. Without Jerry, there would have never been justice in the Medgar Evers case, the Mississippi Burning Case, the Birmingham CHurch Bombing, and many others.

      In addition, I can tell you from personal experience and a friendship that is some 8 year old, that Jerry is a fabulous friend. He is brilliant, witty and a man of his word. When we were working on the Mississippi Burning and Clyde Kennard cases, we usually talked more than daily. Since then we speak just every once in a great while – but his warmth and friendship never waver. I am proud to have played a part in his work and very honored to be his friend.

  2. To be included with those great Americans, dead and alive, mentioned by Mr. Mitchell is truly an honor. Yes Virginia, there are heroes and sometimes they are recognized
    at home. Great investigative reporter is true and just think how much more great he could be if he had cooperation from those who go to church on Sunday and collaborate among each other during the week to continue ways and means to keep people away from the polls, in poverty, out of our universities and community colleges, and have very obviously attempting to bring an end to public education to benefit all Americans.

    • For those who do not know Col. Branch, she is a genuine hero of the CIvil Rights movement. She was a pioneer in integrating Mississippi and in the U. S. Army. And without her moral presence, we would never have been able to reopen the CLyde Kennard Case. She was a great friend of Mr. Kennard and helped Jerry Mitchell elicit a turning point admission during an interview with the only witness against Mr. Kennard. She is my hero and my friend!

  3. You wrote a very, moving, heartfelt article, on the 3 civil rights workers.
    Barry–Be very proud, of all that you have done,to preserve their memory.
    In Hebrew, we have the word–
    In a personal memorial,alone,in the dark of night, on June 21, 2009,I was there, at the exact spot,the exact time, where they were murdered.
    With Jewish Prayerbook in hand, I said some prayers, for the 3 murdered victims.
    In pitch black darkness, I yelled out the Hebrew words—

    • Ken, your faithfulness to the memory of J.E. Chaney, Mickey Schwerner, and Andy Goodman is inspiring. I know from your e-mails over the years how deeply touched you have been by their story. I got to know each of their families and I think that experience only magnified my desire to see the case reopened. James and Michael and Andrew were not characters in the film or faceless martyrs for a cause. They were real people. Each was loved by many.

  4. This is Kenneth Meyer.
    I wanted to correct something in my First message-on the 4th line.
    The correct spelling of the Hebrew Word is –

  5. I want to commend you and your students for this fantastic work. You are a credit to teachers everywhere – and I say that as a retired educator with 41 years experience.

    • Mr Adamson,

      To be complimented by one who spent four decades as a teacher is more praise than I can easily accept. Thank you for your dedication to the noble profession of teaching.

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  7. This country desparately needs a new civil rights movement starting riit away because ever since our first African Americon won the White House in 2OO9 the horrible BACKLASH from the damned G.O.P. Tea Party whose leaders and followers who are exactly the same people as the KKK and skin heads and White Supremacist Fanatical religious right wing have now got a horrible grip on this country. First of all in early 2OO9 the G.O.P. dominated Supreme Court destroyed the protective civil rights law that protected the older workers from age discrimination which caused at least an additional 2O million citizens of this country to be slammed into permanent unemployment, secondly the damned Supreme Court passed CITIZENS UNITED, allowing Racist filthy rich Tea Party racist leaders, the infamous KOCH BROTHERS to destroy fair elections in this country and last but not least, the very heart and soul of the Civil Rights Movement has just been maliciously smashed up and maliciously destroyed by the horrible Tea Party Supreme Court-the federal laws that PROTECTED the voting rights of minority groups in at least 25 of our states! If we do not fight back against this horrible back lash with full force of another nationwide huge civil rights movement I fear this country will soon become exactly what Germany was in 1938…and if that happens those 3 heros, Mike Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney will have died in vain.

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    • When I saw “Mississippi Burning” , Ifs so disgusted. Yes, it appeared that my
      people weren’t doing anything at all. My Heroe: Robert Parris Moses for 3 yrs working Underground with SNCC Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party
      After reading the book “and gently he shall lead them”, I understand why our people had go just like the Underground Railroad. We don’t get any credit for anything, just like the Black soldiers in the Civil War. I saw too much of Gene Hackman not enough of the Underground how it all started…

      • Thank you for reading my blog!

        Mr. Moses is absolutely a man to be admired! I have never had the honor of meeting him, but everyone who put their lives on the line in the service of justice were remarkable. The charismatic Mr. Moses was an inspiring leader.

        He was, of course, not alone. People like Lawrence Guyot, Raylawni Branch, Joyce and Dorie Ladner and so many others worked shoulder to shoulder with him. We stand with hats off to their courage.

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