Forty-one years after masterminding the execution of James Chaney (a black American Mississippi civil rights activist) and two voter-registration recruitment volunteers from New York, Edgar Ray Killen (an ordained Baptist minister and Klansman) was convicted on three counts of manslaughter. The trio of early-twenties idealists had been engaged with thousands of others in “Freedom Summer” to help the black majority register to vote.
Director Marco Williams retells the events of the deadly summer with tears-in-your-eyes truth. As the facts pile up, like bodies after other disasters, the wrath and rage of real-life James Baldwin’s essays and Mississippian Richard Wright’s fictional Bigger Thomas become sickeningly clear.
- In 1960 less than 7% of Mississippi’s black population was registered to vote.
- In order to register, black citizens had to pass a literacy test based on obscure sections of the U.S. constitution “the stuff that lawyers argue about.”
- Being seen leaving the courthouse (bigoted dispenser of “justice for some”—some things never change) often marked the god-fearing men and women for death with the final benediction “Get ready to die nigger” spat in their faces as the bullet was fired or the noose tightened.
- In 1963, 270,000 votes were cast in a mock election. Candidates included Aaron Henry and his white running mate Ed King.
When word gets out that over one thousand volunteers will be coming to Mississippi in the summer of ’64—many of those white—the State prepares for this “invasion” by purchasing a specially armoured vehicle to patrol Jackson, increasing membership in the Klan from 300 to 8,000 (bringing a repugnant pre-meaning to ‘n the hood) and double-speak rhetoric: “Law and order [will be] maintained Mississippi style,” promises Governor Paul Johnson in one of many archival clips where the images and words convict and condemn faster than any jury.
As commentator Bob Moses recalls, the Klan burned down James Chaney’s church as a trap to lure him back from the volunteer boot camp in Ohio. With the happy-to-oblige assistance of Sheriff Cecil Price, Chaney and his two friends are arrested, briefly held in jail then released, ambushed and shot to death on June 21. But it takes forty-four days to find their bodies. Not surprisingly, many other corpses are also discovered during the search of the countryside, rivers and abandoned cars. It took an anonymous tip to lead the “authorities” to the dead and buried friends. Would there have been any search at all if all three had been black?
President Johnson wanted the case dealt with quickly—he had election worries. J. Edgar Hoover, initially, wanted to ignore the whole effort. The FBI “will not protect Civil Rights leaders,” said the nation’s top law enforcer, but after the murders he was told to do his job. As the widow Rita Schwerner Bender aptly put it, the unsolved deaths were “a great embarrassment to the federal government.”
The only positive result was the guilt-assuaged-by-legislation
being signed into law in 1965. Bright notes in the production abound, not least of which is Christopher Tin’s soundscape, a truly wonderful mix of gospel voices, pensive strings and a perfectly placed, Coplandesque solo trumpet.
Williams has done the world a great service by crafting this awful chapter and filling it with so many clips and commentaries from those who survived.
There’s no inner cheer at the very “unreverend” Killen’s conviction. Sadly, the next installment of systemic racism may well be the chronicling of Katrina. Will it take four decades to mete out justice there as well? JWR