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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

February 04, 1990|IRV LETOFSKY

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.

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