Another Case of Murder in Mississippi : TV movie on the killing of three civil rights workers in 1964 tries to fill in what ‘Mississippi Burning’ left out
The Hollywood types flew into Meridian, Miss., to soak up local color for their movie. Naturally, they had to meet Lawrence Rainey, the old-time sheriff. He always seemed to be in the action around Neshoba County.
This was about three years ago, as producer Tova Laiter and screenwriter Stanley Weiser, the visitors, were planning a film about what Mississippi calls “the troubles"--that summer of ’64 when those three “agitator kids"--civil-rights workers--were killed by Ku Klux Klan night riders and all the wrath came down.
Weiser recalls the gathering at the restaurant at the Howard Johnson’s: “So Rainey comes in with his country bumpkin lawyer . . . (and he was) trying to tell us to do ‘The Sheriff Rainey Story.’ ‘Why do you want to dig up these old troubles again? Sheriff Rainey’s a prince of a man and you should do his story, like “Walking Tall,” Buford Pusser.’ ”
Laiter recalls Rainey as very affable. He was tried in the case, not on murder charges but on federal charges of depriving the three men of their civil rights--the two whites, Michael (Mickey) Schwerner, 24, and Andy Goodman, 20, and the black, James Chaney, 21.
Seven men were convicted, including Deputy Sheriff Cecil Ray Price; Rainey and seven others were acquitted. The sentences ran from three to 10 years.
The irony these many years later was that Rainey was working around Meridian as a security guard. Working for two black men.
Weiser remembers now, “They talked about how there was no problems before 1964: ‘Before this whole civil rights happened, the blacks were treated well.’ We asked about all the bodies (of black people) found in the rivers.” The lawyer said that those weren’t necessarily racist killings and some might have committed suicide.
Rainey recited his theory that the murders in 1964 were done by “their own"--other civil rights workers--and then the FBI covered it up.
Weiser recalls that Laiter was dumbstruck. She kept asking, “How can we believe that?”
Passions ran high and wild around the murders in Mississippi, and still do. When it comes to the retelling of this story, truth also runs wild, although the latest version, via Laiter and Weiser, called “Murder in Mississippi,” might be the best visual history of Freedom Summer. It can be seen Monday at 9 p.m. on NBC.
The core of the cast is Tom Hulce as Schwerner, Jennifer Grey as wife Rita Schwerner, Blair Underwood as Chaney and Josh Charles as Goodman.
It has been hard to round up the facts, as the sheriff’s version suggests.
Two other film versions about the same incident--including the Academy Award-nominated “Mississippi Burning,” showing this month on several cable movie channels--focused on the manhunt for the killers. This new one puts the story in its broader context; it is in effect a “prequel,” showing what led up to the murders.
“Murder in Mississippi” relates that it was the black leadership in “the movement” that called for the invasion of 1,000 or more young white activists into the state to register black voters that hot summer. One black leader comments in the film that white people are part of the problem and have to be part of the solution.
Civil rights advocates believe that if it had just been Chaney who was killed, the media would have stayed at home. The fact that two young white men were killed inflamed the national conscience and set about breaking down the barriers to black franchise in Mississippi and the whole South. In that sense, they were landmark murders.
A four-hour miniseries that veteran TV writer-producer Calvin Clements Sr. wrote for CBS in 1975, “Attack on Terror: The FBI vs. the Ku Klux Klan,” preponderantly followed the FBI version of the manhunt, aided by William Conrad’s booming documentary voice. Wayne Rogers and Dabney Coleman were the star FBI agents; Ned Beatty was “Sheriff Ollie Thompson.”
“I had to change all the names,” remembers Clements, “and I got a call from the network and they wanted to change the name of the state! I said, ‘You want to put it in Tennessee?’ ”
The hit feature film from English director Alan Parker, “Mississippi Burning,” which came out at the end of 1988, was intended as a fiction with a lot of factual background, but again, dealt mostly on the manhunt, starring Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe as ace FBI agents. (It received seven Oscar nominations, including best picture, best director and best actor for Hackman--and ended up winning one, which went to Peter Biziou for best cinematography.)
“Mississippi Burning” evolved into a raucous, vengeance-is-thine movie that did a virtual double reverse on the blaxploitation films of the mid-1970s--only with the white guys raging against the whites over the black frustrations. The beating of a white woman, wife of the deputy, set Hackman and his agents off on a rampage of kidnappings, extortions, assaults, arsons, breakings and other mayhem.
The film was criticized for telling the story from a strictly white point of view. Its black characters pretty much stood around, looking stalwart and resolute but immobile, like the Indians in Old West movies.
“A lot of excitement and a lot of blood and a lot of action,” observed Ben Chaney Jr., 37, brother of James Chaney, “but it didn’t reflect the attitude of the people who were there at the time, and that distorted history.”
Both the surviving Chaney and Dr. Carolyn Goodman, Andrew’s mother, visited L.A. at the behest of NBC to discuss “Murder in Mississippi.” Both like its mood and accuracy of the time and the place.
“Seeing this movie for the first time,” said Chaney, who was 12 at the time of the murders, “I was sort of relaxed and I thought Hollywood was getting close to who the people were in the movement who contributed so much to the struggle.”
Goodman, a psychologist for the New York State Office of Mental Health, noted, “On the whole, this movie did not pull a lot of punches. They were focusing on what happened, and what happened was an incredibly powerful time in history. It was not easy to watch it for me.”
And the pages of history may not close with Monday’s broadcast. The Mississippi attorney general, Mike Moore, announced about a year ago that he would examine the 1964 files and see if state murder charges could be brought. He did not retern several calls from The Times but if he does proceed, it could evolve into yet another version of the truth.
During their recent visits to Los Angeles, Carolyn Goodman and Ben Chaney endorsed the NBC project and introduced the film makers to families and friends. The Schwerner family avoided the movie. Producer Laiter said that Mickey Schwerner’s father told her “the family had a policy not to talk about it and not cooperate in a movie, that his son was no more a hero than anybody else.”
Goodman and Chaney said that they were disturbed by “Mississippi Burning.”
“It wasn’t about civil rights,” said Goodman. “It was a film that used the deaths of the boys as a means of solving the murders and the FBI being heroes.”
(The reality is that the FBI was caught between the warring factions that summer. The earlier productions deified the bureau; “Murder in Mississippi” runs an actual TV news segment prior to the “invasion” in which J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI’s impervious chieftain, rails against the suggestion that his agents should get involved.
(“We most certainly do not give protection to civil rights workers,” the real Hoover says in the news clip. “In the first place, the FBI is not a police organization, purely an investigative organization. And the protection of individual citizens, either natives of the state or coming into the state, is a matter for local authorities.”
(In the TV movie scene, the civil rights workers, who are watching the TV screen, hoot at Hoover’s statement.)
Calvin Clements Sr., semi-retired at 74 (he has a book being circulated in New York, a screenplay being proposed for cable, a musical “kicking around”), was told back in 1974 to avoid any contact with the families. But he feels that his “Attack on Terror” still is “100% accurate.”
He studied articles, 3,000 pages of trial testimony and “all the FBI investigative reports.” (In his writing career he had done episodes of the old “The FBI” series.)
“I had to verify it all,” he said. “I had an (FBI) agent with me all the time.”
One recent night he came across “Mississippi Burning” on a cable channel and “after an hour I just turned it off, it was so false. It was disgraceful.”
Frederick Zollo, producer of “Mississippi Burning,” said he was “surprised about the enormous reaction.”
He said the movie was intended as “a drama, as powerful as we could make it, using the three murders as a backdrop to the study of racism in Neshoba County (changed here to Jessup County) and in the larger view of America.
“I think we certainly succeeded in that respect. I think we galvanized a nation, which a good movie should do. We made America think about the events of that summer and the events in America today, whether it be in Boston (the Carol Stuart murder) the last few weeks, in Howard Beach (the racial incident in Queens, N.Y.) or in that county in Georgia (Forsyth) where no blacks live because of what occurred decades ago (KKK lynchings in 1912).”
They didn’t set out to remake a true story but, he said, many memorable events were carefully reproduced from newsreel footage, including the march on downtown Philadelphia, Miss., and the speech over James Chaney at the funeral.
In publicity notes, director Parker wrote that “Our film cannot be the definitive film on the (Movement). Our heroes are still white. And in truth, the film would probably never have been made if they weren’t,” meaning that the studios wouldn’t finance it out of fear that the white audience might not attend a film with black heroes.
Goodman said that “Mississippi Burning” did serve to arouse interest, “especially among young people,” who hadn’t known anything about that time in the South.
“At the same time,” Chaney put in, “the image that younger people got (from the film) about the times, about Mississippi itself and about the people who participated in the movement being passive, was pretty negative and it didn’t reflect the truth.”
The survivors both acknowledged inaccuracies in the new TV representation. Chaney, who used to “hang out” with his older brother because their mother always pressed James into baby-sitting, is shown in playing with his Slinky on the stairs at the civil rights office in Meridian.
“I don’t know if we had Slinkys in Mississippi at that time,” Ben Chaney said. “I know we used to play out in front of the office with marbles and throw rocks at girls,” he noted, adding a smile at the recollection.
Goodman had minor quibbles “but I’m not sure they will interact on the impact of the film.”
The image of son Andrew, for example. He trained with the workers at the orientation sessions at Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio, prior to “invading” Mississippi. He had even played a racist heckler during the fierce indoctrination sessions. Then he was among the vanguard heading into Mississippi but was there only one day before the deadly trip into the wilds of Neshoba County.
In the film, Andrew Goodman is depicted as a boy who just stumbles into trouble. But his mother insisted, “Andy knew what it was all about. (It came) from his family life. We were always involved in all kinds of demonstrations, pro-labor, anti-fascist. That’s the story of our lives. Andy was not an innocent.”
But, again, that misportrayal doesn’t affect the essence of the film, the mother said.
She noted that many of the so-called Northern agitators were “more than students,” that many were “people from the religious community, they were lawyers, they were doctors, a whole cross section of people who came from far from Mississippi. They came from lives of relative security. They knew they weren’t going down there for a holiday.”
Chaney would have preferred more emphasis on members of the Mt. Zion Methodist Church--the one that was burned by the Klan in the incident that brought the three young men into the night--"and their attitudes and how come this church out of all the churches in Neshoba County was the one that stood up first. What made those people do that?”
Chaney referred to some dialogue in the film that some black leaders were not willing to accept leadership of white people. "(They felt that) this was their movement and they didn’t believe white people could stand up under the line of fire anyway. And when people like Michael Schwerner came down and stood up on the line of fire, he got the respect of the people of Mississippi--blacks, young and old--and from then on they were able to work together.”
Goodman added that there were very few defections after the murders: “That’s something that has to be known too.”
Tova Laiter, now president of Freddie Fields Productions, first heard the name James Chaney in 1984 from writer Ben Stein. Eddie Murphy’s “people” (management) told her that they were looking for movie ideas, and she in turn was discussing possibilities with Stein.
“A friend who had been a state trooper in Arkansas,” recalled Stein, “told me a story about how he had known state troopers in Mississippi who had known Chaney and said what was unknown about him was that he was funny, a mimic, a comical guy. He could do imitations like Eddie Murphy.”
“Why,” asked Laiter, “had I never heard of this James Chaney? I thought, ‘How come I don’t know about this great story?’ ”
Laiter hadn’t known that much American history. She was raised in Israel, studied art and philosophy at Hebrew University and served as a sergeant in Army communications in the War Room in Jerusalem during the Six Day War. She remembered with some pride, “I gave the historic announcement that ‘We have the Wailing Wall in our hands!’ ”
“As it turned out, Murphy didn’t like it,” she said. “His career was just getting rolling and he didn’t know if audiences would accept him dying.”
But she was intrigued about the Mississippi summer and started making the rounds, talking to perhaps 20 people: “Everybody was patronizing. They said, ‘Tova, you know better than that.’ It’s true, if you take on a black subject matter, you’re going on a suicidal mission.”
In 1987, she had a “pitch” meeting with Mark Canton, then Warner Bros. president of worldwide motion picture production (now executive vice president of the corporate Warners): “She presented the story with such passion and it got to me so quickly,” recalled Canton, who had studied contemporary American history at UCLA. “It touched a nerve in me. I thought it was incredibly relevant and, from the dramatic viewpoint, this story was very emotional and very accessible.”
He talked with Lucy Fisher (now executive vice president for theatrical production at Warners) and the deal was set by the end of the day, with rare speed.
“It seemed like a really human way to tell a story that was a story that still affects the nation,” Fisher said. “Most things are didactic, but this one you could use the eyes and ears of Mickey and James.”
Laiter met with 10 or 12 writers, finally working out a script deal with Stanley Weiser, who had written “Wall Street” and “Project X.” “My approach was to isolate the story on Chaney and Schwerner,” Weiser said. “I thought about making it a ‘buddy film'--those dreaded words.”
Then they set about researching, talking with the old Freedom Summer gang in Boston, New York, New Orleans, Meridian.
When “Mississippi Burning” hit big, Warners tensed. “From the management point of view, we had a wonderful script and we would have been happy to wait a year or two or three,” said Fisher, “and then come at it again.” But “Tova was incredibly intent on moving it forward,” Lucy Fisher said. Laiter decided she didn’t want to wait for a feature production and agreed to release the script for a TV production.
Enter TV producer David L. Wolper. About a year ago, he recalled, “I was having dinner with Bob Daly (chief executive officer of Warners) and saying, ‘Are there any films that you’re not making, with scripts that may make good television things?’ He said, ‘Yes, as a matter of fact.’ ”
Wolper then became executive producer of the project and the script was reworked for TV use. “The violence and language were a little coarser than for television, but it could easily be adapted,” said Tony Masucci, NBC vice president for movies and miniseries. “The only important thing we lost because of time was the James Chaney relationship with a young woman in his home town. There were some lovely moments but we had to trim it.”
With such “true-life” or “fact-based” dramas, the question always lingers about what is true representation and what isn’t. It’s obviously a heavier question with heavier topics.
Wolper, a veteran of the docudrama genre, insists, “Unless it’s a court trial or Richard Nixon’s office, nothing between two people is recorded on tape. So a writer creates dialogue. So right away you’re taking dramatic liberties.”
He said that the purpose of the docudrama is to reflect “the emotional sense” of the incident.
Director Roger Young, who shot the TV movie around Atlanta, went into Mississippi to investigate: “I was very concerned that we do it as right as we could. I drove the same roads, I went to the killing sites. I went to the church. “I talked to people on the streets, which was quite interesting. Especially this one man, running a drug store there. I said, ‘What did you think of “Mississippi Burning?” He said, ‘Well, you know, it was an OK movie.’ I told him I was from out of town and ‘What did you feel about this kind of thing?’ He said, ‘You see how old I am?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘Well, I think they got what they deserved.’ ”
Carolyn Goodman is a quiet, thoughtful woman who speaks with precision and authority and expresses a strong will. Ben Chaney has a feisty side apparently built up over years of fervor over matters of civil rights. Even within weeks of the discovery of the bodies, little Ben was in a group of two dozen demonstrators who were jailed for trying to register at all-white Meridian schools. “At 12 you don’t feel you’re too small to take on the world,” he said.
He has ridden the roller coaster of emotions of the civil rights movement. After repeated threats, the family moved to Harlem, where young Ben eventually began hanging with Black Panther militants.
In 1970, at age 17, after a wild excursion with two friends into the South that exploded in the killings of four people in South Carolina and Florida, he was tried three times on felony murder charges. He was acquitted on one charge and found guilty on two, with mercy recommended in both cases since it was acknowledged that he didn’t participate in the actual murders but drove the car and served as the lookout for his two young black companions, one a 19-year-old Vietnam War veteran. He served 13 years in prison.
“I had a regular parole scheduled in the year 2014,” Chaney said. “Ramsey Clark (former U.S. attorney general and a major civil rights activist) got into my case in 1980 and he finally convinced the Florida Parole Board to give me a hearing in 1983 and I was released in September.”
For a time he worked as a clerk in Clark’s law practice in New York, and Clark donated office space for the year-old James Earl Chaney Foundation, dedicated primarily to voter registration drives.
“But now I’m moving back to Mississippi,” Chaney said last week. “We’re going to station the foundation in Meridian. We’re trying to look for a site there to put a building up or maybe rent some space in the meantime, hopefully by the end of the summer.”
So Chaney goes home. Will the New Mississippi be any different than the Old Mississippi? One question put to him during a press conference here was, “What were the decent white people in Mississippi doing at this time?”
Chaney returned, “I don’t know of any decent white person in Mississippi in 1964.”
Research for this article was provided by Harry Fey and Doug Conner of The Times Editorial Library.