A Threat to Justice Everywhere: Chaney, Goodman, Schwerner Murders Haunt Filmmakers

Eleanor J. Bader Nov 14, 2008

Directed by Micki Dickoff and Tony Pagano
Pro Bono And Pagano, 2008

Emmy-winning filmmaker Micki Dickoff was 17 in 1964, the year Freedom Summer sent people south to register African-American voters. “I wanted to go but my father wouldn’t let me,” Dickoff told a packed audience at the New York premiere of NESHOBA, a gripping 90-minute documentary about the murders of civil rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner in Neshoba County, Mississippi. “When the three boys were killed, it haunted me.”

Years later, Dickoff was still thinking about the incident. Specifically, she wondered if Neshoba County had come to terms with its racist past, or if the area remained as racially segregated as it had been during the first half of the 20th century. She teamed up with award-winning filmmaker Tony Pagano, and the pair spent four and a half years probing for answers, along the way interviewing Mississippians of all political leanings and backgrounds.

The result, NESHOBA, culminates in the 2005 trial of Rev. Edgar Lee Killen, an unrepentant white racist believed to be the mastermind behind the activists’ murders.

The film provides a detailed history of Neshoba County and residents’ reactions to shifts in racial attitudes. At the same time, it addresses how local police and the Ku Klux Klan worked in tandem with the FBI and Department of Justice to preserve the white-dominated status quo in the murders’ aftermath. Dick Molpus, a civil rights activist, sums it up: “For 40 years our state judicial system has allowed murderers to roam our land.”

Key leaders in 1960s politics — from Mississippi Senator James Eastland, the pro-segregation chair of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, to the state’s overtly racist governor, Ross Barnett, to local civil rights champions — are introduced using archival footage. In addition, recent interviews with surviving members of the Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner families offer compelling insights about their kin, humanizing them and fueling our understanding of their commitment to equality. Chaney, we’re told, was a 20-year-old Mississippi native who’d joined with New Yorkers Schwerner, a married, 24-year-old social worker, and Goodman, a 20-year-old college student who had not previously been involved in politics. The trio was killed en route to the recently burned Mt. Zion Church in Longdale, Miss.

The voices of countless Neshoba natives add to the mix, exemplifying both racial progress and resistance to integration. Some, like Deborah Posey and Jewel McDonald, one white, one Black, are members of the Philadelphia Coalition, a multiracial organization seeking racial reconciliation. NESHOBA chronicles the coalition’s push to uncover what really happened to Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner — organizing that led the county district attorney and Mississippi attorney general to re-investigate and finally charge Killen.

Dickoff and Pagano spent months interviewing Killen, both before and after his 2005 conviction on three counts of manslaughter. “When he was indicted he gave four interviews, including us,” Pagano says. “We later went back and said we wanted to tell his story. We tried very hard not to demonize him. He paints his own picture.”

Indeed. While Killen comes across as an old-school bigot who makes repeated quips about commie-Jewish-Christ killers, the film nonetheless presents him as a scapegoat. The point is simple: Killen did not act alone. Justice, Pagano and Dickoff argue, demands that all involved have their day in court.

What’s more, Dickoff believes that justice requires a reckoning with racism’s legacy. As she said at the premiere, “With a Black man running for President — unthinkable 40 years ago — our film serves as a reminder of how far we’ve come in race relations and how far we need to go.”

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