Sunday, June 19, 2011

Cinema of Remembrance: A Deadly Season in the Deep South

Forty-seven years ago this month, Jake Blum was 18 when he volunteered for the Mississippi Freedom Summer voter registration drive, just as three other young civil rights workers went missing in Neshoba County. Soon to become a sophomore at Yale University, he traveled south as a member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, which worked with the Congress for Racial Equality to attract more than 1,000 activists to a state that then had the lowest percentage of registered black voters in America.

“There was a lot of fear,” recalls Blum, now 65 and a Vermont resident. “They were so used to being treated as second-class citizens. There had been lynchings and fire-bombings. Being in Mississippi was kind of a long, dark night.”
That scenario is made clear in Neshoba: The Price of Freedom, a thorough 2008 documentary that updates the 1964 murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, all under age 25. They had disappeared after spending the night in jail for a supposed speeding ticket in the town of Philadelphia, but their bodies weren’t found until six weeks later. Chaney, who was the only African-American in the trio, had been tortured and buried alive.

The three bodies are discovered
The U.S. government stepped in when the state refused to go after the 18 members of the Ku Klux Klan who had carried out the killings. With nine of them either released or acquitted, seven others were convicted in 1967 on federal conspiracy charges rather than homicide and given light sentences. The judge told reporters: "They killed one nigger, one Jew, and a white man. I gave them all what I thought they deserved."
Why care about a three-year-old film that revisits an almost half-century-old crime? Well, for one thing, the underlying issue is relevant again, with 31 Republican-dominated state legislatures introducing bills to suppress voting rights, measures that would primarily target low-income and minority communities. In 1980, Ronald Reagan announced his presidential candidacy in Mississippi’s Philadelphia as a signal of coded support for the good ole days of good ole boys. Ever since, the political party of Abraham Lincoln has increasingly assumed the racial discrimination role once reserved for Dixiecrats.

Also, how can any region of the country really move forward never having addressed its bad karma? The nation’s legacy of violence, especially between 1882 and 1968, includes 4,743 lynchings. One state led the pack with 582 of them, so its no wonder Nina Simone composed a song titled “Mississippi Goddam” to express her outrage: “Lord have mercy on this land of mine/We all gonna get it in due time/ I don’t belong here/ I don’t belong here/ I’ve even stopping believing in prayer...”
Edgar Ray Killen on trial in 2005
Neshoba – directed by Micki Dickoff and Tony Pagano – goes on to chronicle the 2005 manslaughter trial of Edgar Ray Killen, a Southern Baptist pastor accused of masterminding the massacre who was among those evading legal punishment 38 years earlier. The filmmakers somehow arranged extraordinary access to the octogenarian. On camera, he denies guilt but continues to spew his racist ideas. “Bird species don’t intermingle,” the extremist says, by way of contending the Jim Crow laws that allowed segregation were simply in compliance with the laws of nature.

Killen claims to be innocent, yet suggests God “will never make me feel guilty for something that He knows I had to do.” His Earthly guilt, however, was finally proved only because a diverse committee of enlightened local citizens had pushed to have the case reopened. They were hoping to exorcise their county’s grim heritage. The cause was furthered by a crusading newspaper editor, Jerry Mitchell, and a brave Mississippi attorney general. But others from the area, as evident in the 90-minute documentary, continue to hate. Plus, a dozen of Killen’s fellow aging KKK conspirators are still walking around.

The widow of Michael Schwerner, the elderly parents of Andrew Goodman, the ailing mother of James Chaney and other family members – each seen as well in archival footage from the 1960s – were able to witness justice finally being served. Their hurt and anger remained raw. Unfortunately, not all of them are still alive in 2011 to attend the June 21st ceremony that will name a new FBI headquarters in Jackson, Mississippi’s capitol city, in honor of those loved ones so brutally martyred almost five decades ago.

Nina Simone in 1964
Like other bigots, Neshoba’s white supremacists apparently have always excused their vile behavior by sliming anyone who challenges them with the dreaded C Word. Nine Simone’s lyrics reflect that response: “Picket lines/ School boycotts/ They try to say it’s a communist plot/ All I want is equality/ For my sister my brother my people and me...”

“Jewish communism” is how Killen describes the Freedom Summer initiative, echoing Adolph Hitler’s justification for the Holocaust – that “communism is Jewish.” The prejudiced preacher refers to journalist Jerry Mitchell as “a red-bearded, ultra-liberal, Christ-hating Jew. I wish him no harm, unless I’m the one who can promote it.”

Similar antisemitism on the part of J. Edgar Hoover probably kept the FBI from conducting a thorough investigation of the killings until forced to do so by President Lyndon Johnson, who later would steer the 1965 Voting Rights Act through the U.S. Congress largely in response to the Freedom Summer sacrifices. If they think of this period at all, most Americans probably assume that the 1988 feature film Mississippi Burning tells the full story, even though it presents a revisionist history of courageous white government heroes and passive people of color.

Jake Blum in 1964
Killen allegedly told an informant that the murders could have been prevented if the “outside agitators” had “stayed at home, where they belonged.” (Never mind that James Chaney hailed from Meridian, Mississippi.) Back in 1964, idealists like Jake Blum didn’t feel that staying home while rampant domestic terrorism unfolded elsewhere was the right choice. 

Luckily, he survived the 24 hours behind bars for a trumped-up traffic violation similar to the one that spelled death for Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner in Mississippi. In another incident, Blum was traveling on a rural road with several colleagues, including a black driver, when a car “full of white guys passed us, made a sharp U-turn, passed us again going in the same direction and then literally aimed their car at us. We swerved to avoid a head-on collision.”

Blum points out that such situations inspired the movement volunteers “to maintain our strength by sticking together and singing freedom songs. We were right on the front lines. It was a raw time.”

Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

No comments:

Post a Comment