On June 8, 2011, in Mississippi Burning by Jerry Mitchell
The Clarion Ledger, Jackson, MS
On a lark several years back, I sent a question to film critic Roger Ebert about Mississippi Burning, a fictional film that depicted the Ku Klux Klan’s 1964 killings of three civil rights workers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner:
Q. You picked Mississippi Burning as your top film in 1988. What do you think about the movie in retrospect? Does it still hold up? It drew quite a bit of criticism at the time from some civil rights movement veterans as well as journalists. It may fascinate you to know that the movie played a role in the reopening of the real case, ending in the 2005 conviction of Edgar Ray Killen. Is this a movie we should show high school students and college students?I had completely forgotten about the question until a friend called me the other day to tell me the question had been included in Roger Ebert’s Movie Yearbook 2011.
Here is Ebert’s response:
A. It was said, accurately, that the movie made the FBI look more proactive in civil rights investigations at that time than it really was under J. Edgar Hoover, whose enthusiasm for civil rights was limited. True. But the film itself remains a powerful story, a parable if you want. Its facts may not be accurate, but its feelings are powerful and sound. And Gene Hackman and Frances McDormand have a scene together that is one of the best in either of their careers.
I regularly watched Ebert and Gene Siskel from the 1980s on so it was a real treat to get a response to my question. Most people probably associate Ebert with his television appearances, but the truth is he is even better in print (and a terrific blogger and tweeter as well).
My favorite of his books is Roger Ebert’s Book of Film: From Tolstoy to Tarantino, the finest writing from a century of film. The collection lives up to its title.
Myra Williams Ottewell says: June 11, 2011 at 12:25 am
I found your article quoting Roger Ebert very interesting, since the viewing of “Mississippi Burning” by high school students in British Columbia, Canada sparked my decision to produce the documentary, “Mississippi ReMixed”. In fact, when I spoke with those students, I put quotes by both Pauline Kael (New Yorker film critic) and Roger Ebert on the board. They had diametrically opposite opinions about the film when it was first screened in 1988. Kael said:
“The director Alan Parker likes to operate in a wildly melodramatic universe of his own creation. In Mississippi Burning, which is set during the Freedom Summer of 1964, he treats Southerners the way he treated the Turks ten years ago in Midnight Express. And he twists facts here as he did there, with the same apparent objective: to come up with garish forms of violence. The entire movie hinges on the ploy that the F.B.I. couldn’t stop the K.K.K. from its terrorism against blacks until it swung over to vigilante tactics. And we’re put in the position of applauding the F.B.I.’s dirtiest forms of intimidation. This cheap gimmick undercuts the whole civil-rights subject; it validates the terrorist methods of the Klan… Parker is a slicker – a man with talent and technique but without a sustaining sensibility. Each time I heard the pulsating music start working me up for the next bout of violence, I dreaded what was coming. The manipulation got to me, all right, but the only emotion I felt was hatred of the movie.”
And to another point in your article, the involvement of “law enforcement” in racist acts, I contacted a retired Mississippi Highway Patrolman to ask about my father’s role, if any, in civil rights demonstrations. I also asked him about law enforcement’s involvement in perpetrating violence and hatred in the state. (By the way, I went to a screening of “Prom Night in Mississippi” in Vancouver, and Paul Saltzman (Producer/Director) told the audience that a retired FBI agent told him that approximately 90% of law enforcement officers in Mississippi were involved in Klan activities.) The retired MHSP officer wrote me saying:
“I can’t speak for anyone but myself in this case but I can speak authoritatively about the MHSP. To my positive knowledge during the entire period from 1961 through 1985, when I was an officer, there were only three Troopers who were members of the Klan. All of them were fired immediately when their membership was discovered. No warning, no paid leave during the investigation, just fired out of hand when they were asked if they were members of the Klan and they responded in the negative. The Commissioner produced his evidence and fired them on the spot. No appeals to the governor, the courts or anyone else.
As to who may have sympathized with the Klan, I can’t answer that. Who knows what’s in someone’s mind? I do know the general feeling among the troopers was that the Klan was a bunch of thugs and lawbreakers of the lowest order of humanity. We infiltrated the Klan a number of times and were instrumental in bringing a number of them to court. It would be of great interest to me to hear the evidence the FBI agent had of Trooper involvement. I don’t think you’ll find any real evidence of Troopers that were involved with the Klan.
Now, as to Klan involvement by some of the smaller Police Departments and Sheriff’s Offices in the state, that is a different matter entirely! There is much evidence in the public record of Klan infiltration of some departments. Notably, in the case of the three civil rights workers that were murdered near Philadelphia, MS, Cecil Price, a Neshoba County, deputy was revealed to be a member as were some of the officers of the Meridian Police Department. This information came out in stories by the news media. Involvement and sympathy probably varied considerably by section of the state. Some areas of the state had very little Klan activity while other areas were hotbeds.”
Thank you, Mr. Mitchell, for your articles that shine the light on subjects that need to be discussed, so that all Mississippians – at home and outside the state – can talk about our shared history, our successes in race relations and our goals for the future. If I may be so bold, my film, “Mississippi ReMixed” is one that high school students might benefit from seeing.
Jerry Mitchell says:
June 11, 2011 at 9:45 am
Thanks for sharing all these details. You’re right that the level of law enforcement being involved in the Klan often depended on the area; it also depended on the leadership.
I know I had a Meridian policeman from back then tell me that you never talked to your partner back then because you knew he was either working for the Klan or the FBI.
You mentioned certain areas being Klan hotbeds, which is true. In fact, you can take the areas that were Klan hotbeds during Reconstruction, and virtually the same hotbeds existed during the 1960s.
Yes, Mississippi ReMixed is a good way for students to get a sense of Mississippi then and now. Much better than Mississippi Burning.