Murder in Mississippi (1990)

 

 

Director:    Roger Young.

Starring:    Tom Hulce (Mickey Schwerner),  Jennifer Grey (Rita Schwerner),  Blair Underwood (James Chaney),  CCH Pounder (Fannie Lee Chaney),  Andre Braugher (Dennis),  John Dennis Johnston (Hatchet-faced man),  Donzaleigh Abernathy (Sue),  Royce D. Applegate (Deputy Winter),  Harry Caesar (Hollis Watkins),  Josh Charles (Andrew Goodman). 

The story of the 1964 murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi.  They were there to  help blacks win the right to vote.

 

Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

Neshoba County, Mississippi, 1964.  James Chaney, a civil rights worker from Whittier, comes to the Mount Zion church to ask the preacher if he could hand out some fliers to his parishioners and to say a few words to them about registering to vote.  The preacher tells James that this is not any of the Lord's business.  James places some fliers on the windshields of the cars in the area.  He starts driving away from the church.  Soon a policeman is after James.  James floors the accelerator and is able to get rid of the cop.   

James gives his kid brother Ben a ride in his car.  He goes to the Meridian Community Center to COFO Headquarters, Lauderdale County, Meridian, Mississippi.  There a speaker named David is talking to a small group of blacks.  He says that last week a black man was arrested in Jackson for "reckless walking".  They need help because the authorities are picking off the civil rights workers "one by one by one"  This is Freedom Summer and whites will be coming down to work for civil rights in Mississippi.  James has strong doubts about this, saying blacks should solve their own problems.  He even refers to the whites coming down as "crackers". 

Mickey Schwerner and his wife Rita are the first white civil rights workers to arrive.   Mickey is a really friendly guy, who is very enthusiastic and very optimistic in his outlook on things.  The Schwerners are from New York City and were chosen out of hundreds of applicants to come down and help with voter registration, as well as help prepare the way for other civil rights workers coming down in June.  A fellow named Matt assigns James to be the assistant to the Schwerners.  James is definitely not happy about it. 

The Schwerners walk to their car, a beat-up old Volkswagen bug.  They find that two of their tires have been slashed.  James says sarcastically:  "You ain't seen nothing.  This here, just a hello kiss."  He advises Mickey to get rid of his New York plates and his goatee. 

The next morning, James's family wakes up to the Schwerners sleeping in the Chaney living room.  Mother Chaney starts screaming for James when she sees the unexpected visitors.  She asks:  "What are those white folks doing in my living room?"  James says no one else would take them in.  The Schwerners get harassed on the streets of Meridian by a bunch of rednecks.  They call Mickey a Jew-boy and tell him to get off the street.  Rita pulls Mickey away from them.  When they get around the corner, James grabs Mickey and shoves him up against a brick wall.  James tells Mickey that he was endangering them all by being sassy to the rednecks. 

The Schwerners move into a small apartment in town.  They go to work in the Cofo headquarters.  James complains to black Sue Brown about Mickey, "the emancipator".  Sue reminds James that he has always been complaining about something ever since the first day he started working with the organization. 

Mickey and James start trying to get blacks registered to vote.  Mickey gets his first experience of a door being slammed in his face.  The local black barber explains that when a person registers to vote, they print the name in the newspaper.  He asks Mickey:  "What you think gonna happen when the Klan reads my name?"  Mickey and James talk to Mr. Watkins, an elderly black man, about registering to vote.  He says the last time he was down there, the registrar asked him how many bubbles are there in a bar of soap?  Mickey asks Watkins to come to register.  They will be there to support him.  The man actually says he will be there.  The man goes inside his house.  Mickey is all enthused about getting someone to register, but James tells him:  "He was just yessing you to get rid of us."   

Mickey and James wait at the courthouse for Mr. Watkins.  They start thinking the man isn't going to show up, but he does show up.  One of the ridiculous voting questions Watkins has to answer is:  "How long is the Mississippi River and how many counties does it run through?"  Then he has to interpret paragraph 183 of the Mississippi State Constitution.  James gets so disgusted that he pulls Watkins out of the room.  Mickey asks the woman test giver if she can interpret for him paragraph 183 of the Mississippi State Constitution.  She tells him to stay home and clean up New York. 

After Mickey and James put Mr. Watkins on the bus, James tells Mickey that there's one test for whites folks and a much harder one for the blacks.  Mickey is getting tired of James's constant negativity and cynicism.  He walks away from him and almost gets hit by a pick-up truck full of rednecks yelling and screaming at him. 

At home Rita tells Mickey it took seventeen phone calls before they turned the water back on in their apartment.  Rita says it would be great if just one person would smile at her in this town of Meridian.  They get a phone call and Rita answers it.  A hateful woman says on the phone:  "Is this the wife of that nigger-loving Jew that almost got run over today?  Well, that was just a warning to get your sorry butts out of town."  Rita slams the phone down. 

Two fellows from the Mount Zion church, Charlie Parham and Emmet White, come to speak with James.  They say they want to register to vote. 

James is leaving to register voters in Neshoba County.  Mickey runs outside and catches James as he starts to leave in his car.  Mickey wants to go with him, but James says it's too dangerous:  " . . . if we were there together in the same car, white and colored, in Neshoba County, man, it'd be happy hour for the Klan."  Mickey refuses to give in and gets in the car.  James tells him to sit in the back, so if they do get stopped, Mickey can say that James is his driver. 

James speaks to a group of black workers about registering to vote.  There's no reaction from the group.  James calls on Mickey to speak.  Mickey says that they are going to have freedom schools for the summer.  College students will be teaching in the schools.  And they would like to use Mount Zion church.  One worker says:  "But Rev. Jenkins preaches that there ain't no room in the church for agitation."  Mickey says they will be doing other things as well, like boycotting stores that won't hire blacks.  Mickey and James start working the crowd in tandem so well that James finally starts to change his attitude to Mickey.  They manage to get almost all the workers to stand up and say they will help in the civil rights struggle. 

On the ride back to Meridian, James hides in the back of the car.  A cop car starts following them.  James wants Mickey to make a run for it, but Mickey refuses.  He keeps driving and after awhile the cop  turns his patrol car around. 

James and Mickey lead a protest march in front of a store.  This hurts the business of the store.  The whites use violence to beat up some of the protestors.  James does fight back, but Mickey does not. 

Mickey and Rita appear before the court.  Judge Ronald Allred speaks to them.  He says that many of the whites are afraid the blacks will take away their jobs and their way of life.  A white minister speaks to his congregation.  He prays:  "Give us the strength to prevent the mongrelization and the destruction of our state, our families and our loved ones by the nigger communist invaders beset upon us."  It turns out, however, that the congregation this time is just a bunch of the members of the white-sheeted KKK. 

Rita gets threatened in the laundromat by a bunch of young rednecks.  There is the threat of rape in the air.  Rita starts screaming.  A woman comes into the laundromat and yells at the fellows and the guys run out.  Rita goes home and starts packing  She tells Mickey that she is leaving.  She has had it.  This upsets Mickey because he doesn't want her to go.  Outside men are pounding the Volkswagen bug to pieces with sledge hammers.  The next day Rita leaves on the bus for home. 

Charlie Parham and Emmet White come over to tell Mickey that the congregation has voted to have the freedom school in the church.  As the men talk, Rita comes back home.  The blacks hold a march to the registrar's office.  Mr. Watkins is going to take the test again.  This time Judge Allred will be there to make sure nothing goes wrong.  And this time, Watkins passes the test. 

Freedom Summer Volunteers' Training Center, Oxford, Ohio.  Up in Ohio Mickey and James help train the volunteers to deal with shouting and screaming rednecks.  One of the guys watching the training laughs at some of the things going on.  Mickey starts giving him the redneck welcome.  He comes on so strong that the fellow, Andrew Goodman, starts attacking Mickey.  Andrew catches himself when Mickey does not fight back and apologizes.  Mickey says maybe he himself went a little overboard. 

Bob Moses tells the volunteers that this is going to be work that is dangerous.  He asks those who don't think they can do it to leave.  Quite a few of the volunteers leave, but quite a few stay.  Moses tells those that stay:  "There's no turning back."  After the meeting Andrew tells Mickey that he wants to work with him down in Meridian.  Mickey tells him he shouldn't do it.  Andrew asks Mickey why does he have it in for him?  Mickey tells Andrew:  "It's got nothing to do with you." 

Mickey tells James:  "No matter what we tell those kids, they've got no idea what they're getting into."  He seems to have lost some of his enthusiasm for the struggle.  Even if blacks got the vote in Neshoba County, they'd still be outnumbered 10 to 1.   James answers back:  "If it was about the numbers, Mickey, why would whites go so far that they'd even try to kill us to stop it?  It's the power of the idea."

White racist extremists attack the people at the Mount Zion church.  As they beat black people up, they ask where's the white boy.  No one knows.  The whites set fire to the church and burn it down.  That makes the white sheriff say:  "That ought to bring the Jew-boy back down here."  When James and Mickey hear about the church, they pack up to head back to Mississippi.  Mickey says good-bye to Rita.  Andrew Goodman rushes out to stop their car.  He wants to go with them.  Mickey has his reservations, but he agrees to let Andrew go with them. 

In Meridian Sue Brown tells Mickey that he better not go back to Neshoba County.  The Klan came to the church specifically looking for him.  Mickey says he has to go.  Sue tells him to check in with her by phone.  She'll be waiting right by the phone in the office.  The three civil rights workers go up to the burnt out church.  Charlie Parham and Emmet White tell the guys that freedom doesn't come easy.  They will rebuild the church. 

The guys drive home on Route 19.  Soon they pass a police car.  The policeman turns his car around.  They don't see the police car for awhile and think they are in the clear.  But no, the sheriff stops the fellows.  He says he pulled the nigger over for speeding.  The other two, says the sheriff,  are being taken in as suspects in the burning of Mount Zion Church.  The guys have to ride in the back seat of the Sheriff's car.  They are thrown into jail.  Mickey asks for a phone call.  The sheriff is not going to give them a call. 

The Klan fellows start meeting up at a local bar.  They know the civil rights workers are in jail and they plot how to kill the guys.  Sue Brown has been calling the jail, hospitals and elsewhere trying to find the guys.  The person, who answers the phone at the jail where the guys are being held, tells Sue that they know nothing of the three men.  The Klansmen are getting their rifles and pistols out of the car trunk of another Klansman.  Andrew starts getting really scared and Mickey has to calm him down. 

All of a sudden the three guys are released from jail.  They get in their car and head out.  The guys try to get out of Neshoba County as fast as they can.  All of a sudden, five cars are seen coming up behind their car.  James floors the accelerator pedal, but the cars stay right behind them.  James takes a dirt road to try and shake them off.  He does shake three of the cars off and he heads back to return to the main road.  But, as they proceed on their way, their path is blocked by two of the five cars.  The three cars come up behind James. 

The terrorists grab the three fellows and pull them out of the car.  They then surround them.  They start telling off the civil rights workers.  James is knocked on the head with a pistol and goes down.  One of the guys shoots Mickey at almost point blank range.  Andrew stands up to the fellow and he gets the same treatment.  One of the men asks his son to shoot and kill James, but the fellow can't pull the trigger.  Dad slaps his boy and pulls a pistol.  James tells him:  "I ain't running from any of you."  James is shot three times. 

44 days after their disappearance, the three bodies are dug up at an earthen dam 20 miles outside of Philadelphia, Mississippi.   A funeral is held for the three civil rights workers.  Ben Chaney says he's ready to take his brother's place.  He puts fliers on car windshields. 

"No one was charged for the murders of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman.  It was not until six years later that seven men were convicted in Federal Court . . . not for murder but for violation of civil rights.  None of the convicted served more than six years in prison, and all are free today.  In 1965 Congress enacted the Voting Rights Act suspending all literacy and discriminatory registration tests."

 

Good movie.  Gives the viewer some idea of just how terrible was the system of apartheid in the Southern USA.  The Klan terrorists killed the three civil rights workers just for trying to help bring about a more just society.   Rednecks are terrible, immoral people who feed off of racism and hatred.  And all too many are willing to commit murder to keep an unjust society unjust.  And in this movie you see the hatred all too prevalent in the South.  I was a high school student when the murder of the three civil rights workers happened.  I remember thinking that the people of the South are crazy.  There was always an undercurrent of hatred running through most of the whites.  And I always felt that violence could erupt at any time if one expressed sympathy for blacks in the presence of Southern whites.  The murders of the three were much worse than portrayed in the film.  As the movie started I hoped they would be merciful on the viewer and not show too much of the horror and violence of what the proud white Southerners did to the civil rights workers.  No, just shooting the guys would have not been enough for the haters.  They had to torture them first to get their sadistic kicks.  You can look it up on Wikipedia if you are interested.

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.

 


 

The country seat of Neshoba County is Philadelphia.    Route 15 goes north-south just to the west of Philadelphia.  Route 19 goes through the heart of Philadelphia.  The town is west of highway US 55 running north-south and north of highway US 20 running east-west. 

The Cofo headquarters were in Meridian, Mississippi, on highway US 20, west of Jackson, Mississippi.  Philadelphia is northwest of Meridian. 

 

 

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