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A Time for Burning--Murder in Mississippi

June 05, 1988|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

JACKSON, Miss. — During World War II, a group of black soldiers were asked what should be done with Hitler if he were captured alive. Their response: "Paint him black and sentence him to life in Mississippi."

--From "Attack on Terror: The FBI Against the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi," by Don Whitehead

Everybody stared hard at the stage. A tall, angry man--his glasses steamy with perspiration, his face as red as his suspenders--was giving a stem-winding White Citizens Council stump speech.

He stood in front of a huge banner, adorned with the slogan, "Never Never Never." Shaking his fist, he bellowed, "I love Mississippi!"

Waving torches in the air, the crowd erupted with cheers and applause. " They hate Mississippi," the man continued, his eyes shiny with fervor. "They hate us because we present a shining example of successful segregation. These Northern students, with their atheist communist bosses, came into our community this summer with the wish to destroy it. This week their cause has been crippled. . . . They're powerless against us, if every last Anglo-Saxon Christian one of us stands together!"

The cheers were deafening. No one seemed to mind that it was way past midnight, the mosquitos were biting and the ground was so gooey that every time you moved, your feet sank up to your ankles. It was a sight to behold--600 rowdy Mississippians standing in a big muddy field on a hot spring night, sweating and hollering, in no mood to leave.

Off to one side of the stage, a woman who'd been watching this noisy display turned to a visitor, saying, "I just keep telling myself what they said about 'Jaws'--it's only a movie, it's only a movie!"

OK, it is only a movie. The spirited populace was recruited extras; the fiery speaker turned out to be actor Stephen Tobolowsky, who plays a Ku Klux Klan leader; the rally had been going all night because director Alan Parker was shooting a complicated series of close-ups.

But for Hollywood moviegoers too young to remember the grim '60s news footage of Southern church bombings, firehose assaults and bloody night-stick beatings, this film could be a startling history lesson. Called "Mississippi Burning," it's a chilling detective tale starring Willem Dafoe and Gene Hackman as a pair of FBI agents investigating the murder of three young civil-rights workers.

Due out by Christmas from Orion Pictures, the $15-million Dixie noir looks to be more than just another heated Hollywood polemic about race relations in the South. It probes the uneasy alliance of two FBI men, with Hackman as an ex-Mississippi sheriff who's turned his back on prejudice and Dafoe as a brash Northerner eager to put his Kennedy-era ideals into action.

The film is set in 1964, during what people here call "The Long Hot Summer." It was a summer of crisis--a summer when hundreds of young, predominately white civil rights activists invaded Mississippi, trained to educate blacks and help them register to vote.

Locals in that era scoffed at the activist label--they preferred the term "outside agitator." By summer's end, the Mississippi chapter of the Ku Klux Klan had ballooned to more than 5,000 members. The state Klan leader, Sam Bowers--later sentenced to 10 years in jail for his role in the civil rights workers' murders--was a lifelong bachelor who entertained visitors by barking "Heil Hitler" to his dog. He was also accused of masterminding nine murders, 75 bombings of black churches and 300 assaults and beatings.

Three of the murders occurred on June 21, 1964, on Highway 19, 3 miles east of Philadelphia, Miss. Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner were jailed by local police, then released later that night--virtually into the arms of Bowers' Ku Klux Klansmen, who shot them, dumped their car in the Bogue Chitto swamp and buried the trio in an earthen dam on a farm called the Old Jolly Place.

For legal reasons, the filmmakers don't mention the names of the civil rights workers. They've also changed the names of the Klansmen and the locations where actual events occurred. They've even disguised the brand of chewing tobacco used by local lawmen, switching from Red Man (the real thing) to Old Jake, a fictional brand designed by the prop department.

The Struggle Persists

Still, no one's bothered to disguise what state spawned this ugly mayhem. The film, which wrapped late last month, offers graphic reminders of an era where redneck locals denounced Northern FBI agents as "commie-loving Hoover boys" (for J. Edgar Hoover) and claimed the NAACP (National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People) stood for a collection of racial slurs.

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