The FBI Files: The True Story of Mississippi Burning

First aired: 1999

Genre: Documentary

Broadcaster: Quest

BOB URL: https://learningonscreen.ac.uk/ondemand/index.php/prog/000C38CC?bcast=122681672#

Reviewer: Bradley Phipps

On the night of 21st June 1964, three civil rights workers – James Chaney (a black Mississipian), Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner (both white and from New York) – disappeared in Neshoba County, Mississippi. The men were part of the Freedom Summer project, which sought to challenge racist restrictions on voting in Mississippi. The trio were victims of a lynching, and it was found that a conspiracy to kill the men had been hatched in cooperation between the local Ku Klux Klan and Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price. The trio of civil rights activists were arrested by Price before being released from the station and pursued by the Deputy Sheriff in his patrol car alongside other Klan members. The group then murdered the three men before disposing of their bodies in an earthen dam. The murder of these three men has become one of the most well-remembered and infamous incidents of white supremacist violence, and was the subject of the 1988 film ‘Mississippi Burning’.

The FBI Files: The True Story of Mississippi Burning seeks to tell the story of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) efforts to find the bodies of the three murdered men and subsequently and to bring the perpetrators to justice. The documentary relies particularly upon reconstructions of events and also makes use of interviews – primarily with three FBI agents who were involved on the case – but also occasional brief snippets of an interview conducted with Bob Moses, an African American civil rights activist who played a central role in the Freedom Summer project.

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The documentary is particularly successful in demonstrating that racist violence did not exist merely on the margins of society, but also had support from those in positions of power and authority – in this instance, Deputy Sheriff Price, who conspired with other Klan members, played a key role in their murder by abusing his position of authority by using his legitimacy as a police officer to enable the lynch mob. Similarly, the documentary is effective in demonstrating the barriers to successfully prosecuting those responsible for the lynching, which was made more difficult by the fact that murder was a crime requiring prosecution at a state rather than federal level, and that juries in Mississippi remained resistant to convicting white men of lynchings. The issue of racism in the police and bias in the judicial system continues to be a relevant and contentious discussion to this day, with increasing attention being given to the number of African Americans killed by police and the issue of ingrained racism in the judicial system. The fact that Edgar Killen, the Klan recruiter who masterminded the lynching, was not successfully prosecuted until 2005 – 41 years after the murders – provides just one example of the ongoing limitations of the judicial system in situations such as this.

Also highly interesting – particularly in light of my own area of research – was the mention given to the role of the wives of Klan members who, growing weary of FBI investigations of their husbands and seeking to protect their children, began to give information to the FBI agents about the Klan and its activities. This was an  interesting snippet which alluded to the fact that segregationist activity did not occur in an all-male vacuum, but was also influenced by female family members. However, more could have been made of this angle and a more detailed exploration of the role of these women would have benefited the documentary. In particular, it would have been interesting to uncover to what extent they knew about the planned lynching before it was committed, and indeed what role, if any, they played in Klan activities. Though recent literature has begun to uncover the role of women in the Klan and in the defence of racial segregation and white supremacy more broadly, still not enough is known about their activities and influence, and this was a missed opportunity to contribute to that knowledge.

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The viewer may be left with the false impression from this documentary that racism manifested itself only in the brutality of overt violence. In truth, white supremacy took many forms, including the White Citizens’ Councils, a network of segregationist groups which generally sought to portray themselves as respectable and morally-upstanding and tended to apply more subtle methods than overt violence, such as economic reprisals against African American activists. A brief exploration of the wider field of white resistance during the period, especially given that these murders took place in Mississippi, the heartland of white resistance, would have helped to place the murders in context and have aided understanding of the challenges faced by the FBI investigation rather than effectively viewing the lynching in isolation.

A key weakness of the documentary is brought about by its premise, in that it focuses solely on the FBI investigation of the murders. Though effective at detailing the events and the FBI’s investigation, the programme fails to provide the context necessary to better understand the murders, such as the political climate at the time. At times, this lack of context was jarring and seemed to undermine with the narration. For instance, the narrator asserts that ‘racists drew the line at murdering white people’, and as such ‘the FBI no longer seemed like the enemy’ to many white individuals in Neshoba County, Mississippi. However, all 19 of the men who were charged in connection with the lynching made bail, leaving the viewer to ponder the question of whether the men had assistance in paying their bail, and if so, from whom this assistance came. Additionally, the documentary’s narrow focus on the heroism of the (white) FBI agents is detrimental to providing a full narrative of events. A more detailed analysis – perhaps by speaking to civil rights activists, white segregationists, and Neshoba citizens, would have potentially helped to provide a better portrayal of how the racially-motivated murders were viewed in the county. Much as the 1988 film ‘Mississippi Burning’ has been accused by critics of having a ‘white saviour’ narrative, the same criticism could be made of this documentary.

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The narrow focus on the FBI also brings about a potential conflict of interest. It resulted in a documentary which lionises the FBI, overlooking the claims of critics of the Bureau, who have charged it with being ineffective at investigating incidents of white supremacist violence during the period. Indeed, we know that J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI from 1935 until 1972, was sceptical of the Civil Rights Movement, believing it to be disruptive and radical, and that that the FBI took little action to protect civil rights activists and investigate racist violence – a fact which is alluded to by the documentary’s reference to the discovery of the bodies of other black lynching victims during the search for the three civil rights workers. Two of these bodies were the remains of black students who had been lynched the previous month. The lynchings of these two students – like many other lynchings – had not been investigated by the FBI, and this begs the question of why the disappearance of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner was different – and indeed why their deaths have been remembered and memorialised so thoroughly, in contrast to the victims of numerous other lynchings? If the FBI was as effective, meticulous, and dedicated to investigating this lynching as portrayed in this documentary, then the reason for this should have been explored, perhaps in the context of the public’s reaction to the murders and the pressure on Hoover and his Bureau to act, and whether the fact that two of the victims were white played a role. Instead, Agent Sullivan’s testimony that Hoover immediately took decisive action after the men went missing is allowed to stand without challenge or context. As such, the documentary’s reliance upon FBI cooperation somewhat undermines its balance and its ability to give a fair and critical appraisal of events. Despite this, the documentary does provide an intriguing glimpse into the investigation of this brutal lynching, and reveals the myriad challenges in bringing justice for the victims and the frustrations of an imperfect justice system.

Though the documentary acknowledges that ‘the hatred that split the nation was not so easily eradicated’, it also attempts to portray the murders – and Mississippi itself – as an aberration. Bob Moses’ assertion in the interview featured in the documentary that ‘Mississippi has become like every other state in the country’ seems intended to be celebratory of the progress made since the lynching. But when viewing this documentary today – 17 years after it was first broadcast – in the shadow of present-day racial divisions in the United States, including the resilience of racial segregation; the resurgence of Ku Klux Klan groups; racial bias in policing; and the continuing use of racial rhetoric in politics, one is left to wonder whether such optimism was premature.

Bradley Phipps is an AHRC M3C-funded History PhD student at the University of Leicester and the University of Nottingham. His research explores the role of gender in the White Citizens’ Councils, a network of groups which formed to resist racial integration in the United States. For more information, click here.

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