FORTY-FOUR YEARS AFTER the violent Freedom Summer of Civil Rights in Mississippi, the story of racial justice in the state is still unfolding. Case in point: The stunning reversal just days ago (September 9, 2008) of last year's conviction of a KKK White Knight for the 1964 abduction of two young black men in Neshoba County, MS, which led to their deaths. And with strange circularity, events on the ground related to what's depicted onscreen continue to be affected by both facts and fictions of documentary and dramatic filmmaking.
The Backstory on Film. The controversy over Mississippi Burning, recapped and intelligently discussed by Townsend Davis in his 1998 book Weary Feet, Rested Souls, created what Davis calls a "media hurricane" in newspapers, magazines and broadcast media, as director Alan Parker was accused of having a "white blindspot" for minimizing the role of Blacks in seeking justice and full participation in American economic and political life.
The 1988 movie fictionalized still-recognizable and painfully real events from 1964, but cast white FBI forces as the heroes of justice and Mississippi blacks as passive and powerless victims immobilized in a racist society. This slant angered many, including both black and white Civil Rights Movement organizers whose efforts to register black voters in Mississippi triggered the violence of Freedom Summer. The crux of the Mississippi Burning controversy: Whose take on historical events should stand?
The debate about the 2008 film likewise centers on who is entitled to tell the story. Neshoba, the newest documentary produced and directed by two-time Emmy Award-winner Micki Dickoff, working with Tony Pagano, explores issues of truth and reconciliation in Neshoba County four decades after the 1964 murders of the three civil rights workers outside Philadelphia, MS, which was the basis of the Mississippi Burning plotline. Neshoba has already drawn criticism and stirred local controversy—even before its official September 14, 2008, premiere in Boston and September 20, 2008, showing in New York.
A principle critic is Donna Ladd, a founder and the editor of the Jackson Free Press, who won national prominence for her investigative work with filmmaker David Ridgen for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) documentary series, The Past Is Not Past. Ladd, who is white, has every reason to understand the potential impact of the documentarian: Information uncovered and filmed in their investigation of a cold case of alleged murders by White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan focused serious attention on the case. As a result, new federal charges were brought and in 2007 James Ford Seale was convicted for conspiracy and kidnapping in the disappearance of black teenagers Charlie Moore and Henry Dee, whose decomposing bodies had been found in the Mississippi River in 1964. Seale was given three life sentences.
A Dramatic Court Reversal: On September 9, 2008, however, a panel of three judges in federal appeals court overturned the conviction. Judge Harold DeMoss explained in the ruling: "The more than 40-year delay [in prosecution] clearly exceeded the limitations period." The Mississippi Clarion Ledger account cited DeMoss: While the enforcement of such statutes "in some cases deprives society of its ability to prosecute criminal offenses, that is the price we pay for repose."
An Associated Press report said that testimony by Charles Marcus Edwards, a self-identified Klansman, played a major role in Seale's conviction. Edwards related that Seale told him of binding the two 19-year-olds with duct tape and dumping them, still alive, into the river. Edwards received immunity for testifying.
Seale's defense argued for retroactive application of the five-year statute of limitations in non-capital criminal cases imposed by a 1972 act of Congress that also abolished the death penalty for kidnapping, said the AP report by Chevel Johnson. Although in 1964, the time of the criminal abduction of the black teenagers, kidnapping was a capital offense, the court ruled that the standards of the 1972 act should apply. Prosecutors may ask the full appeals court to hear the case; meanwhile, the Fifth Circuit Court decision is under review by the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division.
This latest twist on Mississippi justice makes a film like Neshoba only more timely.
Mississippi-born Anne Mollegen Smith often writes about arts, education and social issues.
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