A Conviction in Mississippi
Last Tuesday, Edgar Ray Killen, a frail, sour faced octogenarian with a plastic breathing tube up his nose, was wheeled from a Mississippi courtroom having been convicted on three counts of manslaughter in the deaths of three young Civil Rights workers, forty-one years ago.
At the press conference afterwards the local District Attorney, Mark Duncan, justified the inability to secure a murder verdict by saying, “a lot of witnesses have passed on, a lot of evidence has been lost, and people’s memories have faded.” His other sound-bite repeated on most of the news reports was, “We won’t be painted or described or known throughout the world by a Hollywood movie any more.” The movie he was referring to of course was my film Mississippi Burning.
The reason for the re-opening of the case and the new trial was largely due to the work of one journalist: Jerry Mitchell of the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi. The Village Voice reported that Mitchell had originally seen Mississippi Burning in 1989 and it had spurred him on to the sixteen years of dogged investigative journalism that led to the conviction of Edgar Ray Killen. Ironic that one, resolute, journalist should be so inspired by a film which, on release, was disparaged by so many veteran fellow journalists. As The Village Voice also remarked: “It’s a white liberal’s dream: lone reporter gets bad guys, fixes history.”
In December of 1987 two liberal white guys were trying to get a fix on history. I stood with my producer, the late Bob Colesberry, on a bend of a narrow red-dirt road in Neshoba County in rural Mississippi. With the help of an armful of maps and old newspaper cuttings, the redoubtable, Vietnam vet Colesberry, had pinpointed the exact spot where the young civil rights workers, Mickey Schwerner (24), Andrew Goodman (20) and James Chaney (21) had been beaten and shot to death on June 21st, 1964. Bob and I stood there in silence for a few minutes, realising that true life and death are much more important than the movies. My film has garnered praise and scorn in equal measure over the years and probably mindful of the volatile test-screening reactions I wrote the following in October of 1988 in the press notes that accompanied the release of the film.
In the concluding scene of Mississippi Burning as Lannie McBride and the congregation stand amongst the ashes of Mount Zion Church singing ‘Walk On By Faith’, the camera pans across a Mississippi cemetery coming to rest at the grave of a young black, civil rights worker murdered in the opening sequence of our film. Our grave 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 and his grave has also been desecrated; his headstone, and his memory smashed by ignorance and cowardice: the broken stones dumped in a nearby ditch. His grave is still there in a forgotten corner of a hard to find East Mississippi cemetery and still unmarked. I’d had carved “1964. Not Forgotten” on the film headstone – just a movie prop in a movie fiction.
Our film cannot be the definitive film of the black civil rights struggle, our heroes were still white and, in truth, the film would probably have never been made if they weren’t. This is, perhaps, as much a sad reflection on present day society as it is on the film industry. But with all its possible flaws and shortcomings, I hope that our film can provoke thought and kindle the debate allowing other films to be made, because the struggle against racism continues and this story hasn’t ended.
Edgar Ray (‘The Preacher’) Killen, convicted this week and sentenced to sixty years in prison, was the local “kleagle” or organizer of the Neshoba County, Mississippi klavern of the Ku Klux Klan. The civil rights workers; Schwerner and Goodman were from New York, and Chaney from Meridian, Mississippi. The young men were part of the ‘Freedom Summer’ movement of 1964, to galvanize African-Americans to register their vote. Mickey Schwerner, an activist for CORE (Congress On Racial Equality) in Meridian, was well known to the Klan and variously called “Goatee” or “The Jew Boy” and had been singled out for elimination. The three young men had been visiting Mount Zion church in Longdale, Mississippi (or the remnants of it, as it had recently been burned to the ground and the congregation beaten up). As they drove their blue Ford wagon west on Highway 16, through the small town of Philadelphia, they were arrested by Chief Deputy Cecil Price and thrown into the local jail. After conferring with Sam Bowers, the ‘Imperial Wizard of the White Knights’, Edgar Ray Killen told Price to release the three boys in the middle of the night to be pursued by an assembled gang of Klansmen. In their desperation to escape their pursuers the young men made the mistake of leaving the highway and on an isolated, red-dirt back road they were stopped and shot to death. Their bodies were found 44 days later buried in an earthen dam at a place perversely called ‘Old Jolly Farm”.
After this week’s verdict, James Chaney’s younger brother Ben remarked that the sudden national outcry that followed was not because of his brother, who was black, but the more pertinent fact that two, white, New York kids had been slain. President Johnson and Attorney General Robert Kennedy put pressure on Hoover’s FBI to pull out all the stops in solving the murders. Eventually the dozens of assigned FBI agents cracked the case with the help of a Klan informer. Eighteen co-conspirators were charged, not with murder, which was a Mississippi State prerogative (and they refused to prosecute), but with the lesser Federal offence, bizarrely phrased as “conspiracy to violate civil rights”: an odd description to describe a bullet in the head. The famous photo of Neshoba County Sheriff Rainey and County Deputy Price smirking and stuffing their faces with ‘Red Man’ chewing tobacco encapsulates the contempt with which they viewed the judicial proceedings. Seven of the eighteen were convicted (no one for more than seven years) and the rest went free, including Edgar Ray Killen. A woman on the all white jury said, “I just couldn’t convict a preacher.”
I was sent the original script of Mississippi Burning by the studio, Orion Pictures. They were once the last bastion of responsible filmmaking, run on a shoe string and the good taste of stubborn but benign film elder statesmen, who for a couple of decades before the banks caught up with them, defied the system and managed to make some of the best films in Hollywood (and so are now defunct of course).
The first draft of the script had already been fictionalized somewhat by the original writer Chris Gerolmo. The script the studio wanted to make was a detective story that just happened to be set against the civil rights struggle. After three months of preparation, research and criss-crossing Mississippi and Alabama I had written my own version of the script tugging it back, scene by scene, to the real story. I risked politicizing it, which was too much for some and not enough for others.
My diary for the first week of principle photography on the film (March 7th, 1988) reads: “Hard week of night work—burned three churches—car chase for four nights—lynched Vertis Williams.” Making a film is a bizarre charade, an illusion: a thousand hours of make-believe with a hundred crew members juggling their pizza slices and coffee cups in the middle of the night, up to their knees in Mississippi mud, whilst faking death and pain. In three months shooting was completed, after filming 60 locations in three states
When the film was finished, Willie Brown, arguably California’s most influential black politician, and then Speaker of the California Assembly (and future Mayor of San Francisco) was shown an early screening of the film and waxed lyrically and vociferously. This was bad news (we discovered) amongst black American politics and the controversy surrounding the film gathered apace. Coretta Scott King promptly announced that the film was so disgraceful that anyone connected with it would soon be at a location where we would be savaged by Hades’ dogs — or words to that effect. When it was pointed out that she hadn’t actually seen the film she said it wasn’t necessary. I guess she didn’t like the garrulous Willie Brown with his fedoras and all that political bling, sucking up to Hollywood.
Political controversy surrounding a film is still rare because, in the main, the output of Hollywood has always been apolitical: striving not to take sides. Conventional wisdom is that it’s not good for business. Suddenly with Mississippi Burning the controversy got out of hand. It was impossible to turn on TV without someone discussing the movie — or using the movie to trigger the debate. Often it was black politicians and activists attacking my film but mostly they attacked one another, because there certainly was no consensus in the black community towards the film. For myself I was somewhat bemused by it all. In the beginning it was rather nice to have your film talked about but suddenly the tide turned and although it did well at the box office we were dogged by a lot of anger that the film generated.
At the heart of the criticism was the fact that the black civil rights struggle had somehow been usurped by a bunch of white guys: on and off the screen. The history of that struggle deserved many films and many of them had already been made for cinema and TV and frankly, been ignored. Mississippi Burning happened to be the first one that had made any impact on a global scale with its media visibility, box office and showy Oscar nominations. So suddenly everyone was talking about the odious effects of racism in America and my film was the punch bag for people to get on air and express their views furthering their own agendas.
Also we were attacked by veteran journalists who had actually reported on the Neshoba County murders. The film was made twenty five years after the event and so the venerable journalists that had covered it also had a possessive, proprietorial sense about this moment in history—their moment in history, no less— and hence were glad to be wheeled out to thump this whippersnapper movie.
Journalists have always had a problem with this form — the union of drama and historical fact —because the sacred rule of good journalism is the preservation of corroborated facts, which cannot and should not be messed with. Cinema and the dramatic arts work in a different way. Movies are an artistic expression, which communicates viscerally. Great cinema is as much about ideas and possibilities as it is about facts.
To recreate a time and place with maximum authenticity and diligence; to recreate dramatic situations which have an air of reality about them; to write in a language that’s not phoney and acted in a way that’s naturalistic as opposed to theatrical should be just good film making. When all these elements come together and combust then delicate nerve ends are touched in the audience and suddenly a new set of rules comes into play. Somehow the moral high ground becomes more lofty. The rules become tougher but every so often, and ever more rarely, a film can transcend the ‘entertainment’ we filmmakers are ordered to provide by our financial masters. Not all films have to be the bastard child of the video game and the special effects movie. Sometimes films can be about something and remain in the audience’s consciousness, long after they’ve left the cinema. Sometimes they can inspire others, like Jerry Mitchell, to seek and achieve justice 41 years later.
Originally appeared in The Times, June, 2005
An abbreviated version of this article appeared in the Huffington Post in February 2014. I subsequently received this remarkable email from the journalist, Jerry Mitchell, mentioned above.
Dear Mr. Parker,
This is a thank you note, albeit nine years late, for your kind article after the 2005 conviction of Edgar Ray Killen for orchestrating the 1964murders of three young men, now known (because of your movie) as the Mississippi Burning killings. I never saw your original article when it was published, but a friend sent me a link to a recent Huffington Post piece based on that piece.
Your movie inspired me to begin this journey. What I saw was so powerful and so visceral I became angry.
When the KKK murdered these young men, I was 5 years old, growing up what seemed like a world away in my sheltered hometown in Texas, horribly ignorant of what was taking place elsewhere in the South … and my hometown as well.
I happened to see the movie in January 1989 at a press screening in Jackson, Miss., along with two FBI agents (Roy Moore and Jim Ingram) who investigated the case and a journalist (Bill Minor) who wrote about that case and many others like it. After the film ended, these three old men dissected the film, told me the real-life events it relied on and explained details regarding the case.
What horrified me most was that more than 20 Klansmen had been involved in the killings of these three young men, but none had ever been prosecuted for murder. This injustice spurred me on, leading me to develop sources who slipped me thousands of secret (and sealed) records by the state’s notorious segregationist spy agency, the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission.
On Sept. 10, 1989, I did a story that showed the state spied on Mickey Schwerner and his wife, Rita, three months BEFORE he and James Chaney and Andy Goodman had been killed and shared those records with the Meridian Police Department, made up of many Klansmen. One, in fact, was the brother of the main shooter, Alton Wayne Roberts. (Despite this revelation, the state still wouldn’t prosecute the case.)
I got leaks of other records that showed that while the state was prosecuting Byron De La Beckwith for the 1963 murder of Medgar Evers, another arm of the state, the segregationist spy commission was secretly assisting the defense, trying to get Beckwith acquitted. (The all-white juries in 1964 did indeed come close to acquitting him.)
That story ran Oct. 1, 1989, and it prompted Evers’ widow, Myrlie, to call for reopening her late husband’s case. A month later, prosecutors did reopen the case and eventually indict Beckwith and reprosecute him. On Feb. 5, 1994, a jury convicted Beckwith. The sheriff later told me that when they led Beckwith away to serve his life sentence, the Klansman kept saying two words.
“Two words?” I asked. “What two words?”
“Jerry Mitchell,” the sheriff replied.
Still unable to get the state to do anything about the Mississippi Burning case, I reported on KKK’s attack on the Vernon Dahmer family in Hattiesburg, Miss., in 1966. The state reopened the case in 1991, but quickly got cold feet. I kept reporting and reporting on it, but it wasn’t until a new witness called me in 1997 that authorities did anything about it. On Aug. 21, 1998, Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers — whom you well know — went to prison for life.
Because of an email from the wife of one of the last living suspects in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four girls, I got involved in that case, discovering that suspect Bobby Cherry had lied about his alibi when he claimed he was watching wrestling on TV the night of the bombing.
The truth? There was no wrestling on TV for him to watch.
In 2002, a jury convicted Cherry, and he was given four life sentences — one for each one of those girls.
Once again, secret documents led me back to the Mississippi Burning case. Bowers, who never gave interviews, gave an interview with the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, which was to be sealed until his death. I managed to get it leaked to me, and in that interview, Bowers discussed how he was “quite delighted to be convicted” in the 1967 federal trial and “have the main instigator of the entire affair walk out of the courtroom a free man.”
He was referring to “Preacher” Killen, who orchestrated the events that night. I called Killen up, and after 20 minutes or so, he told me, “Some guy in Jackson keeps stirring things up and stirring things up and stirring things up.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell him it was me, so I took him and his wife out to a small restaurant in Walnut Grove, Miss., where they charged $8.95 for all the catfish you could eat, plus sweet tea and tax.
He told me he didn’t have anything to do with with the killings of these young men. I asked him what should happen to those who did kill the trio. “I’m not going to say they were wrong,” he said.
Then he told me this story: When Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, the FBI at that moment had no idea who killed the civil rights leader. The FBI sent agents everywhere, including to the home of “Preacher” Killen, asking where he was on April 4, 1968. Killen refused to talk, but an agent left his business card. Time passed, and one day Killen picked up the card, called the agent and asked who killed King. The agent replied, “Why do you want to know?” Killen responded, “Man, I want to shake his hand.”
As you already know, “Preacher” Killen was convicted on the exact anniversary of those killings in 2005.
To date now, there have been 24 convictions in these cold cases from the civil rights era.
My opinion? None of this would have happened without your film.
Yes, movies sometimes win awards, but what about films that change hearts and minds? What about films that have the power, over time, to change history?
I just wanted you to know how eternally grateful I am to you. Your film changed the trajectory of my life, and for that I will always be thankful. One of the best things that has happened to me has been getting to know each of these families affected by these horrible tragedies. I can tell you how grateful all of them have been to finally witness convictions — something they never thought they’d see.
I wish you could have been in the courtroom and heard all the guilty verdicts and seen the tears flowing down these families’ faces. Solomon was indeed right when he said, “When justice comes, it brings joy.”