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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

January 22, 2014: Civil Rights Histories: Murders in Mississippi

[Following up my MLK Day post, a series on some of the crucial complexities of the Civil Rights movement and related histories and stories. The weekend will feature another crowd-sourced post, so please share both your takes on these posts and some of the histories and stories you’d highlight. Thanks!]

On two distinct cultural portrayals of a tragedy, and what each leaves out.
By far the most prominent cultural engagement with the June 1964 murders of civil rights workers James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner is the film Mississippi Burning (1988); the film starred Gene Hackman, one of his era’s biggest movie stars, and Willem Dafoe, one of its up-and-coming young stars, and received seven Oscar nominations, including for Best Picture, Director, and Actor. Yet while it is a gripping political and legal thriller, I would argue that as a work of historical fiction Mississippi Burning fails completely—not because it may be inaccurate to the actual FBI investigation, nor even because it tells virtually none of the story of the three young men, but because it portrays a crucial moment in the struggle against racism and white supremacy as led by FBI agents. Let’s just say “Not so much” and leave it at that.
Far more engaged with all those histories—of the three slain workers and of the broader contexts to which they connect—is Pete Seeger’s song “Those Three Are on My Mind” (1966; that’s obviously a cover). In fact, Seeger balances both levels of history very effectively, opening with verses devoted to each of the three young men’s identities and then building toward broader, biting condemnations of the society, legal and justice system, and nation within which the murders took place and in which Seeger’s speaker lives uneasily as well. Yet Seeger’s song has to my mind one significant flaw, and it’s a very common—indeed, almost unavoidable—one when it comes to how we think about and portray dark American histories like these murders: it focuses on the individual and overtly evil perspectives and actions of “the killers,” those directly responsible for such acts of violence.
Of course there were individuals who committed the murders, and at least some of them were eventually brought to trial (although they went largely unpunished). But the more salient truth about lynchings and racial violence in the South, from the immediate post-Civil War era up through the 1960s, was that they were deeply communal in nature, supported (at least tacitly, and often quite openly and proudly, as the pictures and postcards in the Without Sanctuary exhibit illustrate) by large portions of the white population. Depicting that kind of widespread communal culpability is of course far more difficult and painful than focusing on individual killers and criminals (as both the film and song do, in their different ways)—but it would also, I would argue, come far closer to telling the full story of the murders in Mississippi.
Next complex history tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Civil Rights histories or stories you’d highlight?


  1. Your assertions about the communal nature of that which precipitates such things is very important and so often overlooked (I think because it is more complex, and in difficult times we seek easy answers like pointing the finger at a few instead of understanding the tacit (or not-so-tacit) participation of the many). To my mind one of the works which best presents this facet of these kinds of issues is Bob Dylan's "Only A Pawn in Their Game" from the 1964 album *The Times They Are A'Changin'*, a song in response to the murder of Medgar Evers. While this song specifically deals with the power structure in the South and the ways in which it manipulated the overall political and cultural climate there, it also suggests that the specific identity of the man whose "finger fired the trigger" is unimportant in terms of assessing the situation, that it was a system, a community of sorts, which put whatever it was in the killer's brain that urged him to commit such an act. This way of broadly contextualizing something so tragic and painful is not the easy response, but it is important and holds much truth.

  2. Thanks! I had totally forgotten about that song, Ian--a very relevant one, and definitely a strong example of art trying to grapple with these questions.