Saturday, August 28, 2010


August 1964, earthen dam where bodies of Chaney, Goodman , and Schwerner were found. Federal agents can be seen collecting evidence. Eppridge was not allowed access to the site so he rented a helicopter and flew overhead to get this picture. © Bill Eppridge

In late June of 1964, three civil rights workers in Mississippi went missing, kidnapped by Klu Klux Klansmen. One man was black, the other two white. Their names were James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. They had been in Mississippi as part of Freedom Summer, a voter registration project started by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and Congress of Racial Equity to help register black voters in Mississippi. Shortly after this, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy sent the FBI and Federal Marshalls to Mississippi to investigate their disappearance.

Their bodies were found in early August, 44 days after they had disappeared, buried 25 feet beneath an earthen dam. All had been brutally murdered. A local informant had been spurred on by a reward of $30,000, and gave the exact location of the bodies to the FBI.

National indignation over the murders helped President Johnson to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The Voting Rights Act followed a year later, and ended legally mandated segregation in Mississippi and throughout the South.

LIFE magazine sent Bill Eppridge to Neshoba County, Mississippi immediately after the news broke. There are no pictures of the crime - just the brutal aftermath, and the devastating grief and sorrow brought upon one family.

© Bill Eppridge: The Chaney family as they depart for the funeral of James Chaney, Meridian, Mississippi, August 7, 1964

Because Mississippi officials refused to prosecute the killers for murder, a state crime, the US Justice Department Department charged eighteen individuals under the 1870 US Force Act with conspiring to deprive the three of their civil rights (by murder). Only seven were convicted, and none served more than six years. Remarkably, on June 21, 2005 -- 41 years to the day after the killings --a jury convicted Edgar Ray Killen, described as the man who planned and then directed the killing of the civil rights workers, on three counts of manslaughter.

© Bill Eppridge: Young White children on the day of James Chaney's Funeral, Neshoba County, Mississippi, August, 1964

A powerful movie, “Neshoba: The Price of Freedom”, opens September 10 in Los Angeles. Writing for Bloomberg News,  Rick Warner reports:

"In 1964, 17-year-old Micki Dickoff asked her father if she could travel from their South Florida home to Mississippi to help register black voters. He said it was too dangerous.

“He grew up in the Mississippi Delta, in the only Jewish family in town,” Dickoff said in a phone interview. “He knew all about discrimination and he was worried about my safety.”

His fear was justified. That summer, three young civil- rights workers -- white New Yorkers Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner and black Mississippian James Chaney -- were murdered by Ku Klux Klansmen near Philadelphia, Mississippi.

Dickoff, now a documentary filmmaker, looks back at the case and how it still reverberates through the county where the murders took place in “Neshoba: The Price of Freedom.” The powerful movie, co-directed by Tony Pagano, is vivid proof of William Faulkner’s adage that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Although the killers bragged about the murders, state officials refused to prosecute anyone for the crime. Seven men were later convicted on federal charges of violating the victims’ civil rights, but one of the ringleaders, preacher Edgar Ray Killen, avoided prison when a single juror held out against his conviction.

Racist Preacher

The film features new interviews with members of the victims’ families -- including the mothers of Goodman and Chaney and Schwerner’s widow -- and longtime Neshoba residents divided over how to deal with the darkest chapter of their county’s history. Yet Killen, now 85, grabs the spotlight with his unrepentant racist views, his unconvincing denial of any involvement in the murders and his “they had it coming” attitude toward the slain young men.

Killen agreed to talk to the filmmakers even though the state, after four decades of inaction, had finally charged him with the murders that inspired the dramatic movie “Mississippi Burning.” He continued to spout his nonsense on camera until he was convicted of three manslaughter counts on June 21, 2005 -- 41 years to the day after the killings -- and sentenced to 60 years in prison.

Almost as disturbing as Killen are the Neshoba residents who criticize the prosecution for reopening old wounds. They seem more concerned about dredging up Mississippi’s racist past than punishing those responsible for three brutal, cold-blooded murders. (Several of the suspected killers will probably never be prosecuted for murder because of weaker evidence.)

But the film, which includes archival news footage, family photos and a soundtrack of 1960s protest songs, does offer hope. Killen will surely die behind bars, the victims’ families have received a small measure of justice and, partly due to the bravery of people like Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney, a black man now calls the White House home.

"Neshoba: The Price of Freedom" opens in the Los Angeles area at the Laemmle Music Hall in Beverly Hills and at the Laemmle Playhouse Pasadena on September 10. (More playdates here.)

"Neshoba: The Price of Freedom is not only timely but urgent." -- The Film Journal International

"How was this allowed to happen? How do we move forward? Some questions, this compelling movie reminds us, still require answers." -- Time Out New York

"The end credits remind us that eight men who were indicted in 1967 by the Feds are still alive and free. Which can't be said of "The Forgotten," those commemorated on a scrolling list naming over 100 civil rights martyrs whose bodies have yet to be recovered." --Slant Magazine

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