Chapter 1 1
The Ford station wagon topped a hill before disappearing into the darkness. Mickey Schwerner drove, deep in thought. Fellow New Yorker Andy Goodman propped his body against the passenger door, drifting off to sleep. Mississippi native James Chaney, the lone African-American, swallowed hard, shifting in the backseat.
Two cars and a pickup truck raced to catch up. Schwerner spotted them in his rearview mirror. “Uh-oh.”
The noise woke Goodman. “What is it? What do they want?”
Schwerner rolled down the window and stuck out his arm, motioning for the car to pass. “Is it a cop?”
Goodman gazed back. “I can’t see.”
The car crunched into the wagon, and Schwerner wondered aloud if their pursuers were playing a joke.
“They ain’t playin’,” Chaney said. “You better believe it.”
Metal and glass smashed again. “What are we going to do?” Goodman asked.
Schwerner told his fellow civil rights workers to hold on. He jerked the wagon off the blacktop onto a dirt road, sending up a swirl of dust. His pursuers weren’t shaken. Instead, they flipped on police lights and began to close the distance again.
Schwerner spotted the crimson glow in his rearview mirror and cursed. “It is
Goodman advised, “Better stop.”
“Okay, sit tight, you guys. Don’t say anything. Let me talk.”
Schwerner turned to Chaney. “We’ll be all right. Just relax.”
The wagon squeaked to a stop. Doors opened and slammed shut, interrupting a chorus of frogs.
Flashlights bathed them in light. A Klansman with a crew cut told Schwerner, “Y’all think you can drive any speed you want around here?”
“You had us scared to death, man,” Schwerner replied.
“Don’t you call me ‘man,’ Jew-boy.”
“No, sir, what should I call you?”
“Don’t call me nothing, nigger-lovin’ Jew-boy. You just listen.”
The crew cut moved closer to the driver and sniffed. “Hell, you’re even startin’ to smell like a nigger, Jew-boy.”
Schwerner reassured Goodman, “We’ll be all right.”
“Sure you will, nigger lover.”
“He seen your face,” a fellow Klansman advised. “That ain’t good. You don’t want him seein’ your face.”
“Oh,” the crew cut replied, “it don’t make no difference no more.”
He pressed his pistol against Schwerner’s temple and pulled the trigger. Blood spattered against Goodman. “Oh, shit, we’re into it now, boys,” one Klansman said.
Three shots echoed in the night air.
“You only left me a nigger, but at least I shot me a nigger,” another Klansman said with a chuckle, joining a choir of laughter.
Everything went dark. White letters spelled out on a black screen: “Mississippi, 1964.”
I was one of several dozen people watching the film Mississippi Burning
tonight, squeezed inside a theater where coarse blue fabric covered metal chairs. Nothing distinguished this movie house from thousands of other multiplexes across America. Except, of course, that this was not just any place.
This was Mississippi—a place where some of the nation’s poorest people live on some of the world’s richest soil, a place with the nation’s highest illiteracy rate and some of the world’s greatest writers. Decades earlier, Mississippi had bragged in tourist brochures about being “The Hospitality State.” What it failed to mention was it led the nation in the lynchings of African-Americans between the Civil War and the civil rights movement.
Through newspaper photographs and television news, Americans had witnessed the brutality in Mississippi for themselves. In spring 1963, they saw police dogs attack civil rights workers in Greenwood. Months later, they observed the trail of blood left by NAACP leader Medgar Evers when he was assassinated in the driveway of his Jackson home. During the summer of 1964, Americans watched sailors tromp through swamps in search of the three missing civil rights workers, Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, who were last seen leaving the small town of Philadelphia, Mississippi.
For forty-four days, the drama unfolded before the nation. Mississippi’s US
senator Jim Eastland told President Lyndon B. Johnson that he believed the missing trio were part of a “publicity stunt,” and Mississippi governor Paul Johnson Jr. suggested they “
could be in Cuba.”
Days before the FBI unearthed their bodies on August 4, 1964, the governor spoke at the Neshoba County Fair, just two miles from that grisly discovery. He told the cheering crowd there were hundreds of people missing in Harlem, and “somebody ought to find them.”
The killings came to define what the world thought of Mississippi, and no subsequent events had dislodged it by the time I came here in 1986 as the lowliest of reporters for the Pulitzer Prize–winning newspaper The Clarion-Ledger
. I arrived the day before my twenty-seventh birthday, the same day the paper carried a story about the burial of Senator Eastland, the longtime chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee who had bragged about having
extra pockets sewn into his jacket to kill all those civil rights bills.
The days of Jim Crow had long passed when I drove into this capital city of nearly 200,000 with my wife and our baby daughter. Jackson was bursting with New South pride and Old South prejudice, but doing its best to conceal the latter. I had been here three years now, from 1986 to 1989, and put thousands of miles on my Honda hatchback in that time, trying to find my feet as a reporter while trying to understand this beautiful and haunted state. When I first heard Mississippians refer to “the War,” I thought they were talking about Vietnam—only to discover they meant their great-grandfathers’ Civil War, which their descendants, it seemed, had never stopped fighting.
At my desk, I had read the
January 9, 1989, issue of Time
magazine, which featured the Mississippi Burning
movie on the cover. Jackson had been abuzz about the film since last spring, when some residents complained about “Hollywood liberals” invading their town. Disdain turned to curiosity when word spread that actor Gene Hackman had been spotted at Hal and Mal’s, a popular pub and eatery. Lunch crowds doubled.
I was curious, too, about this movie and how it would impact Mississippi. I had volunteered to cover its state premiere at a January 10 press screening. At The Clarion-Ledger
, the statewide medium-sized newspaper, I felt like little more than a rookie. And tonight’s assignment seemed like a welcome break from the court beat, where I faced the daily battle of getting scooped by my more talented rival at the Jackson Daily News
, Beverly Pettigrew Kraft. I could hardly count it as a victory that she wasn’t in attendance. This was, after all, a minor story.
But I hadn’t counted on the attendance of the man sitting next to me at the screening. After the opening scene, his voice startled me, deep and resonant. “That’s not accurate,” he said, gesturing up at the title card. He leaned over and explained that it was Chaney, not Schwerner, who was the driver that night.
As the night wore on, I learned just how much he knew. His voice blended with the images on-screen. After a young African-American witnessed KKK violence, FBI agents in the film concealed his identity with a cardboard box, driving him around Neshoba County to look for his attackers. The man next to me leaned my way and said, “That really happened.”
When the house lights came on, I asked what he thought of the movie.
“It’s fiction, all right,” the white-haired man replied, explaining that the movie had fictionalized how the FBI had solved the case.
I jotted down his words on a legal pad I was carrying, and I began to chat with the man, who had firsthand knowledge of the case. Roy K. Moore was the retired special agent in charge of the FBI in Mississippi, which investigated the June 21, 1964, killings we had just seen reenacted on-screen. I was grateful he had come, allowing me to tie Hollywood to the real history in tomorrow’s newspaper.
Moore turned to speak to the two men behind us. They included Jim Ingram, a six-foot-four Oklahoma native who had been involved in the investigation and headed the FBI’s civil rights desk in Mississippi, and veteran journalist Bill Minor, who had covered the killings and invited the pair here.
While the rest of the press left, I lingered and listened to these old men, wondering why my history teachers had failed to mention these events in class. I peppered the men with questions about the case. They told me that more than twenty Klansmen had taken these three young men out to a dark, remote road and executed them. They said locals knew these suspects, yet no one turned them in. The perpetrators kept working and walking the streets as if they had been caught speeding, rather than carrying out a triple murder.
“No one was ever prosecuted for murder?” I asked.
“Nobody,” Moore replied.
I had heard of people getting away with murder before, but I had never heard of twenty people getting away with murder at the same time—no less, in a case that made headlines around the globe. They had shot to death these three young men, and the state of Mississippi had done nothing about it. How was that possible?
Even now, the former investigators seemed at a loss to explain it. Mississippi Burning
became one of the nation’s most controversial films. Critic Roger Ebert called it “the best film of 1988,” saying it makes “an important statement about a time and a condition that should not be forgotten.” But veterans of the civil rights movement bashed the movie for turning agents from J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI into heroes while portraying activists as cowards.
The bickering blazed hotter in Mississippi than anywhere else. Crowds flocked to the film, some to be entertained and some to be outraged. Mississippi governor Ray Mabus, who had Hollywood good looks to go with his Harvard University education, appeared on the Today
show and spoke to the National Press Club. “The message I don’t want people thinking is, ‘That’s Mississippi today.’ The message I do want them coming out with is how far Mississippi has come. I know that there are things in our past that everybody would like to change—in all of our pasts—but we can’t affect that. What we can affect is the future.”
As I wrapped up my story on the film premiere, I sought a comment from Mabus’s office, telephoning his press secretary, Kevin Vandenbroek. He echoed the party line about the film: “A mixed blessing. If there’s a silver lining, it gives Mississippi a chance to say, ‘That was then’ and, ‘This is what’s going on now.’?”
But there was something else he wanted to say. He asked to go off the record, and I agreed. An award-winning radio and TV reporter before taking his current job, Vandenbroek couldn’t resist sharing a little advice. “Have you ever thought about the case, the real murders being revisited?”
“No,” I said.
“You know it’s not too late. Bill Baxley, the attorney general over in Alabama, prosecuted some Klan cases back in the seventies. Went after those bastards that blew up those four girls in the Birmingham church.”
“I didn’t know that. How can you—?”
“I thought you were a court reporter.”
“Aren’t you forgetting something?”
“There is no statute of limitations for murder.”