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Jewish Journal

’Neshoba’ probes truth behind 1964 civil rights slaying

by Tom Tugend

August 31, 2010 | 5:33 pm

From left: Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner were killed by a Ku Klux Klan posse outside Philadelphia, Miss., during the Freedom Summer of 1964. Their brutal murders came to symbolize the close ties of the two minority communities in the civil rights struggle.  Photo courtesy of First Run Features Release.

From left: Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner were killed by a Ku Klux Klan posse outside Philadelphia, Miss., during the Freedom Summer of 1964. Their brutal murders came to symbolize the close ties of the two minority communities in the civil rights struggle. Photo courtesy of First Run Features Release.

On June 21, during the Freedom Summer of 1964, two young Jews from New York and an African American from Mississippi were murdered while on a mission to register black voters in the South.

They were killed by a Ku Klux Klan posse outside Philadelphia, Miss., the seat of Neshoba County.

In 2005, 41 years later to the day, the mastermind of the slayings, “Preacher” Edgar Ray Killen, 80, was convicted by a local jury and sentenced to 60 years in prison.

Shortly before Killen’s trial, Micki Dickoff, a Los Angeles filmmaker and social activist, and photographer Tony Pagano traveled south. Their goal was to record memories of the political and emotional landscape of the people of Philadelphia, many of whom had lived with, or ignored, the crime that occurred in their midst for more than four decades.

In “Neshoba: The Price of Freedom,” the filmmakers have created a documentary about a town where a new generation is trying to confront and heal the scars of the past, while a few unrepentant elders mouth the same racist epithets, as if frozen in time.

There are heart-wrenching interviews with the families of the three victims, undeterred in their search for truth and justice, as well as glimpses of black and white Neshoba residents working together for a better future.

But, in their most impressive feat, Dickoff and Pagano managed to get full access to Killen before, during and after the trial.

The result of what might be called “A Portrait of the Racist as an Old Man” is a picture of a once-common Southern rural type whose bigotry came so naturally that he’s proud to show it on camera.

As a reviewer for the Dallas Morning News put it felicitously, “You know the phrase ‘give them enough rope’? This guy is a one-man hemp factory.”

We learn from Killen that the media is controlled by Jews and communists, and that the black man is inferior because the Bible says so.

The murder of the three young men shook the country and helped galvanize President Lyndon Johnson and Congress to pass the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act the following year.

In parallel, the brutal crime, which joined in martyrdom two Jews — Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner — and one black, James Chaney, came to symbolize the close ties of the two minority communities in the civil rights struggle.


It is, therefore, rather puzzling that the film never explicitly mentions that Goodman and Schwerner were Jews, nor is there any indication of their heritage at their funerals or in their families’ laments.

It is not that Dickoff — writer, co-director and co-producer of the film — is insensitive to the issue.

She recalled in a recent phone interview how her father grew up on the Mississippi Delta, the child of the only Jewish family in town, later moving to New York.

In 1964, when his daughter, Micki, was 17 and wanted to join the Freedom Riders, he categorically forbade her to go. He knew the prejudice and latent violence of the Deep South.

There is probably a separate film that could be done, exploring the fluctuations of black-Jewish relationships over the years, Dickoff said, but in “Neshoba” she focused entirely on the trial and how attitudes had changed, or not changed, in the four decades between the murder and the trial.

Dickoff worked more than six years on “Neshoba,” always scrambling for money to keep going, and said she thinks that if a film about black-Jewish relations is to be made, someone else will have to do it.

“Neshoba” will open Sept. 10 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills and Playhouse 7 in Pasadena.

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