In 1964, two young Jewish New Yorkers, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwermer, along with black native Mississippian James Chaney, were brutally murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan.
The men were on their way to investigate the arson of a church in the tiny town of Philadelphia, close to the Alabama border, when they were ambushed, their car set on fire and their bodies buried in the nearby dam. Forty years after the incident, no convictions had been made in the murders.
In their new documentary, “Neshoba: The Price of Freedom,” filmmakers Micki Dickoff and Tony Pagano return to the site of the murders and painstakingly track the much-delayed trial of Reverend Edgar Ray Killen, the ringleader of the KKK squad that killed the men.
The murders happened at the height of Freedom Summer, when the abolition of segregation in the Southeastern United States became a national cause. Leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Council of Federated Organizations, supported by local civil rights workers and church networks, sent over a thousand volunteers, mostly white and many Jewish, to encourage black Mississippians to register to vote.
The project was publicly opposed by the NAACP, and received little encouragement from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and its president, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Neither group supported the aggressive intervention that Freedom Summer represented, preferring civil rights battles to be fought gradually. The project was also not particularly successful in its voter registration drive. Nonetheless, Freedom Summer was one of the events that turned the tide in the civil rights movement, thanks in part to the tragic martyrdom of three of its volunteers in Neshoba County, Mississippi.
On June 21, Schwermer, Goodman and Chaney were pulled over by a KKK-sympathetic police officer, who arrested Chaney for speeding and booked Goodman and Schwermer for investigation. The three men paid a fine and were released, but shortly after starting back they were pulled over once again. The police department had tipped off members of the KKK, who shot Goodman and Schwermer and beat Chaney to death, burying him while he was still breathing.
As a documentary, “Neshoba” is no great shakes. The filmmaking — a montage of town residents interspersed with vintage ’60s footage — is riddled with clichés. And though it touches on the inner turmoil of Neshoba county residents, the movie does little to illustrate the complexity of race relations in modern Mississippi.
The directors are meticulous in their interviews with the victims’ families, however, and follow the case as it advances, inch by inch. Killen’s unrepentant racism is chilling — in between blazing anti-Semitic screeds he remarks that he knew the NAACP was training black volunteers to rape white women. But die-hard segregationists like him have long since fallen out of favor.
Still, the resistance of ordinary Neshoba residents to Killen’s trial is widespread, and it’s easy to see why. In the South, scratch a genealogy chart and you’re likely to find some nasty things about your grandparents, uncles or even brothers. Growing up in the South, I knew families, firmly established in the Birmingham country club set, who were but a few relations away from a Grand Wizard. The film asks if justice has been served, but it leads us to ask: What is justice, when it comes to civil rights? How many are ultimately implicated? The state is on trial, yet again.
The trigger men who murdered Chaney, Goodman, and Schwermer are still free, likely living in the same community. If anyone who had something to do with the killings was convicted, it’s not impossible that half the residents of the city, including the police force and politicians, would go to jail.
Indeed, the insidious creep of racism is still popular among Southern politicians today, as shown by Mississippi governor Haley Barbour, who appears briefly in the film talking about “code words.” Jim Crow might have been forced out, but the “inner city” and “welfare moms” are well and good. Most cities in the South are as segregated as ever, albeit informally.
While “Neshoba” cements the importance of the Jewish community in the struggle for civil rights, it isn’t equipped to deal with the ongoing war for equality that’s still being waged in Mississippi, and the rest of the United States. The horrific murders in Neshoba county may be one step closer to closure, but the rest of the state hangs in the balance.
Previously in the Forward: Justice Comes to Neshoba County