Mississippi Smoldering
 — Jim Kates

Originally published in the Keene, NH Sentinel.

See The FBI's Mississippi Myopia for an additional article on this topic.
See Lynching of Chaney, Schwerner, & Goodman for background & more information.
See also Chaney, Schwerner, Goodman Lynching for web links.

I was asked to attend the Boston press showing of Mississippi Burning wearing two hats — the tattered straw plantation hat of a veteran of the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project and the nattier headpiece of a contributing writer on the arts for my regional newspaper. Also, having the first draft of a novel that is set among mostly white volunteers in 1964 whispering in my files, I felt sensitive to the most obvious question raised by the film: its eclipse of the most important events and people of the story it tells. The eclipse is deliberate; director Alan Parker writes in an epigraph to his press-packet production notes, "Our heroes are still white. And in truth, the film would probably never have been made if they weren't. This is a reflection of our society not the Film Industry [sic]."[1]

Presumably, then, it was our society, not the Film Industry, that listed the three civil rights workers whose lynching is the spring of the film as "Goatee," "Passenger" and "Black Passenger" in the credits. We learn from the racial attribute of one what is to be considered the norm for everybody else. As in everything surrounding integrated freedom work in the Deep South of the 1960s, there is a sharp tension between the active Black population and the minority of whites who attract credits and headlines in spite of our own attempts to step back. In 1964, when James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman were "disappeared" for a month and later found — beaten, shot and buried under a dam site — on the day Lyndon Johnson declared war in Vietnam, those of us who were white volunteers in Mississippi had very little emotional room to grieve for our companions. Of course, there were memorial services, but it was a summer of memorial services, one way and another. Of course, it turned the screws of our fear, but the fear was constant all the same, and it was both inappropriate and politically incorrect to dwell on our fears among the greater terror and honest heroism of the ordinary people we were working with daily. In the words of the freedom song, we were:

"... soldiers in the army,
We have to fight although we have to die.
We've got to hold up that freedom banner,
Hold it up until we die.

When we returned north, it was the suffering and work of others, not of ourselves, that occupied us. And then, in the wider movement of anti-war organizing, our earlier experiences became, like so much else, "irrelevant" when they were not put to immediate, tactical use:

We had walked through the shadow of death.
We had to walk all by ourselves,
We never turned back — 
No, we never turned back.

But the road back and the road forward are the same, and more recently in my life I've been able to acknowledge the psychological insights with which modern warfare, especially Vietnam, has enriched our collective vocabulary — "survivor guilt," for example, and "post-traumatic stress." More specifically, I've felt the long repression of my Mississippi emotional life break down. Fear I could never let stop me on the streets of Como and Natchez in 1964 and 1965 welled up in my New Hampshire kitchen after a National Public Radio half-hour review of the Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman lynching — I stood alone, crying and shaking. I slept fitfully that night, with superficially irrelevant nightmares.

And so, on my way to see Mississippi Burning, I felt a compulsive dread — Here is something I do not choose, and yet the choice is mine. The point of turning back passed long before I made the choice.

Mississippi Burning was, I had heard, brutal. I had been prepared for the opening sequence — the actual murder of the three civil rights workers — to be far more than it was. Here is how David Spain, a forensic pathologist who autopsied James Chaney's body, described what he saw:

This frail boy had been beaten in an unhuman fashion. The blows that had so terribly shattered his bones — I surmised he must have been beaten with chains, or a pipe — were in themselves sufficient to cause death. ... In my thirty years as a pathologist and medical examiner, I have never seen bones so severely shattered, except in tremendously high-speed accidents or airplane crashes.[2]

The gentle moviegoer is spared this scene. A simple shot to the driver's temple suffices. (By the way, the driver in the movie is white, while black Chaney had really been the man behind the wheel.) A couple of shotgun blasts, a couple of beatings, three hangings (two interrupted) and a little groin-grabbing and a lot of flames follow. Movieland violence more than Mississippi violence. The rest of the film — action and accents and all — is also Movieland more than Mississippi, at least as far as I can tell. Gene Hackman, Willem Dafoe and the reductive Klanification of evil moved across the screen on the other side of an opaque veil from me — I had committed the unpardonable faux pas of thrillerdom — I identified with the victims. Once you've done that, the rest of the movie recedes into nonsense. Historically I could point out the nonsense of inaccuracies of the FBI's behavior, and so forth, but I'm not sure it's worth much in the currency of Movieland. The trouble is, there weren't many identifiable victims to identify with. The resolutely unnamed civil rights workers are killed at the beginning; and, after that, the film focuses on white folks. Black folks are, well, stereotypes: the praying, brave little kid and his father who won't take "it" any longer, the rangy young men hunted at night-time in the bushes. (After Betrayed and now Mississippi Burning, I'm afraid it's open season on Black males in Movieland again.) I longed to see a Black character as other than a passive cipher and, when one finally, briefly emerged, he was an FBI specialist in torture who quickly hopped a helicopter back to Washington and from there, presumably, to southeast Asia.

The one white woman is treated like — well, Black folks, a true-to-life phenomenon, perhaps, explored in other dimensions by civil rights workers that summer, but just taken for granted in Movieland. My hunger to find somebody on whom I could rest a genuine empathy was so great that when the murderers were being pressed by the importunities of reporters and camera-wielders, I felt a surge of sympathy — for the murderers. "Yeah, you motherfuckers," I said to myself to the Great White Press. "stand back, give 'em room to breathe. Lay off."

Those resolutely unnamed civil rights workers, yes — the final scene shows a grave-marker with the name broken off, nothing but the year and a pious sentiment remains. "Our grave," wrote Alan Parker in his notes, "is the grave of an anonymous individual, a character in a fiction. A film. A movie. But James Chaney, murdered with Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner, is buried in Meridian..."

Parker wants to have it both ways, as history and fiction. Ultimately, the film founders in its own inability to decide between historical recreation and Movieland abstraction. It warns us boldly that "THIS FILM WAS INSPIRED BY ACTUAL EVENTS WHICH TOOK PLACE IN THE SOUTH DURING THE 1960'S. THE CHARACTERS, HOWEVER, ARE FICTITIOUS AND DO NOT DEPICT REAL PEOPLE EITHER LIVING OR DEAD." Do not depict? Somebody depicted "Goatee," "Passenger" and "Black Passenger" as damn-near look-alikes for Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney. Somebody chose exactly the same dates for the same events, even the same times of day. And Parker, by his own statement, wants us to identify the characters with real people, living or dead. "I hope our film can help to provoke thought and allow other films to be made because the struggle still continues."

At the same time, he has effectively excluded any political context from his story. (Except, of course, for an evil society like that which constrains the Film Industry — "Anyone's guilty who watches this happen and pretends it's not ... As guilty as the lunatics who pull the triggers. Maybe we all are.") Even the songs are all gospel — not a breath of the freedom lyrics we lived by. After "Black Passenger"'s funeral (an interesting one to contrast with that of the ANC activist in A World Apart) Mississippi Burning runs completely amok, and perhaps its most serious distortion is to imply that the upshot of all its mayhem is justice.

At the Boston press showing, two local film critics tittered and guffawed from time to time where I could not see any humor. Stiffening against their laughter, I was transported back to Oxford, Ohio, training for the Summer Project. Here is the precedent for my flashback in the words of Wally Roberts, another volunteer:

Tuesday night we saw a movie made by CBS Reports ["Mississippi and the Fifteenth Amendment"] describing how the Negro was discriminated against in Mississippi with regard to voting. Some of the film was absolutely ridiculous and ludicrous — a big, fat, really fat and ugly white county registrar prevents Negroes from voting. ... Six of the staff members got up and walked out of the movie because it was so real to them while we laughed because it was so completely foreign to us.[3]
So, after all these years, I became one with those SNCC staff members who had walked out of our hall in tears and anger. Even as I wanted to stand and confront the two critics behind me, I recognized that the limitations lay not with them but with Mississippi Burning, just as the distant CBS Report and a more recent television "docudrama" based on the killings of Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner have the power to evoke reactions in those who know the signification of the signs of reality. But these film treatments cannot communicate anything new, they can't work as introductions. The critics were laughing at events "absolutely ridiculous and ludicrous," not at the story behind those events. Mississippi Burning doesn't work. And the real reason it doesn't work is because there's no sweat. In Mississippi in June and July of 1964, the weather was hot and hotter from the Delta to the hills. But in Movieland, people don't even get damp in the armpits. Once during the movie Gene Hackman swallows a cold beer, and once an iced tea. And that's what makes us recognize that the characters really are fictitious. Real people sweated and drank grapefruit soda all day — and died — in Mississippi in 1964. Most of them were Black. Some others of us did what we could and left the state and still do what we can — but when the movie's over we go on sitting in darkened theatres, shaking and crying in lost terror and grief twenty-four years late.

On August 3, 1964, I wrote home in a letter, "Tonight it was said that three graves had been found near Philadelphia. How the ghosts of those three shadow all our work! 'Did you know them?' I am constantly asked. Did I need to?"

On December 21, 1988, I can answer that question. Yes, I say, yes. I need to know them.

Quotation sources:

1. Mississippi Burning Production notes, p. 27
2. Post-Mortem, David M. Spain, M. D., Doubleday 1974, p. 37
3. Letters from Mississippi

Copyright © 1988, Jim Kates


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