Neshoba County, Mississippi may be located in our nation’s good ol’ (boys’) South, but its psychic terrain bears more in common with post-genocide Chile or Rwanda. The site of the “Mississippi Burning” murders (in which three civil rights workers, two New York Jews and a Mississippian black, were tortured and killed by the Ku Klux Klan in 1964), the city of Philadelphia is still feeling the shallow grave-buried pain over four decades later. Like Rwanda’s Hutus and Tutsis, the murderers and their relatives, and the family members of those tortured and killed, continue to live side by side.
This is because, though the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 partly in reaction to the homicides, no one was ever brought to justice for the actual crimes. At least not when co-directors Micki Dickoff and Tony Pagano first started filming their documentary Neshoba: The Price of Freedom. By segueing seamlessly between archival footage, present-day talking head interviews with the relatives of the dead, and news-media interviews from right after their family members had disappeared, the filmmakers provide not just a thorough context, but paint a picture of a county frozen in time. And of a coalition of Neshoba residents, both black and white, slowly chipping away at a collective sense of denial.
Though Dickoff and Pagano received unprecedented access to the usual suspects (both the still-grieving mothers, and, surprisingly, “mastermind” Edgar Ray Killen, an octogenarian preacher who, during the course of filming, would become the first and only man to be convicted), they smartly dig deeper. They’re less concerned with whodunit—indeed, even those happy to see Killen in court view him as a convenient scapegoat—than why justice had been denied for so long. Like a sociological forensics team working on a cold case, they spotlight intriguing clues, such as the fact that while dragging the Mississippi River in vain in search of the activists’ bodies, investigators recovered nine other corpses! That the Sovereignty Commission was Mississippi’s own secret police, fighting “commies” using Stasi tactics, consisting of spies who kept tabs on civil rights workers—and that those spies were both unpaid (white) and paid (black). And perhaps most importantly, that the KKK is as ingrained in Neshoba County as the mafia is in Sicily.
Though the film sometimes gets carried away by its passionate subjects, and by its predictable, black-and-white-together-we-shall-overcome vibe, the raw facts are undeniably where the real emotion lies. The end credits remind us that eight men who were indicted in 1967 by the Feds are still alive and free. Which can’t be said of “The Forgotten,” those commemorated on a scrolling list naming over 100 civil rights martyrs whose bodies have yet to be recovered.