The Price of Freedom: 'Neshoba' Exhumes a Dark History

Promoting the awareness of dangerous facts without editorializing becomes an aggressive political act in Neshoba: The Price of Freedom, co-directed by frequent collaborators Micki Dickoff and Tony Pagano. Excavating the onerous past of Philadelphia, Mississippi, the film is less about racial tension than about the friction between heritage and justice, as well as the punitive limits of a democratic state where personal beliefs are protected, no matter how nocuous. In 1964, the small southern county became the subject of international controversy when three young adult civil rights workers investigating the razing of a church--Andrew
Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney, a black man from the nearby city of Meridan-were tortured, murdered and buried in an earthen dam just outside city limits.

 

The bodies of Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney, who were murdered In Mississippi. From Micki Dickoff and Tony Pagano's Neshoba: The Price of Freedom, which opens September 10 in Los Angeles through First Run Features. Courtesy of Pro Bono Productions and Pagano Productions

 

Both Goodman and Schwerner were Jewish activists from New York who had connected with Chaney through the Freedom Summer voting campaign; the fact that their whiteness failed to exempt them from prejudiced terrorism helped the civil rights movement transcend delicate issues of tradition preservation to become an inarguably humanitarian struggle. But while a collection of local municipal and ecclesiastical authorities affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan were tried for the crimes on
charges of rights deprivation by the federal government, they avoided conviction and imprisonment due to the state's unwillingness to assist, or take its own action against the conspirators.

In Neshoba County itself this history of violent insensitivity and xenophobia is almost never discussed. But Dickoff and Pagano provocatively suggest that an undercurrent of potentially explosive paranoia is always felt there, even today. As the film's primary narrative thread begins in 2005 with the efforts of the Philadelphia Coalition--a multiracial action group formed specifically to seek justice for Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney's killings--the directors criss-cross between these
newfound glimmers of hopeful tolerance and antiquarian footage from Neshoba's Jim Crow-enforcing and red scare-embracing past. These archival flashbacks required nearly two years of fundraising to obtain with usage rights, but they provide a vital, contextual fulcrum upon which we might comprehend the startling expository content to follow. The grisly details of the 1964 murders that unfold through autopsy notes and testimony from the victims' families are independently unfathomable, but the tragic tension intensifies even further as we observe the inability of many Philadelphia citizens to confront their endemic horrors with candor.

In one extended sequence, Dickoff and Pagano interview locals at a county fair; they dumbfoundingly evade the Coalition's efforts in conversation and softly defend the darker side of their culture's ideology. Moreover, the influence of segregation as a collective psychology is still evident in the respect they maintain for their elders, even those who were (and are) active Klan members. "I couldn't debate them about it," says Dickoff, "but I found the reluctance of many Neshoba Countians very frustrating, whatever their fears. These were just ordinary people, good people for the most part, yet they were willing to let murderers go unpunished. That was chilling. It was hard to reconcile that people today in the 21st Century have not outgrown their ignorance." But, Dickoff saliently adds, "We can't ask whites to give up their traditions unless they violate the law."

And what of those who do break the law? The second and third acts of Neshoba are dominated by exclusive interviews with Edgar Ray Killen, a former preacher and Klansman who was instrumental in organizing the execution of Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney. Dickoff and Pagano were unaware at the start of production that the Philadelphia Coalition planned to target Killen with legal action, but after an indictment was issued in 2005 they remained in Neshoba to capture the trial and unprecedentedly intimate footage of the largely unrepentant defendant. The aging Killen was smeared by every media outlet to which he offered statements--in the words of Pagano, "They crucified him" --and thus was eager to tell his story to more objective ears.

"It's a very simplistic approach to demonize Killen," Pagano points out. "We tried very hard not to do that, and let him do it himself. We wanted to show that people in this community really like him." Indeed, Dickoff and Pagano give him the liberty to ramble on about
his innocence and misunderstood credo within the sun-saturated environs of his small farm, positing a stark formal contrast with the black-backgrounded, talking-head vehemence of the victims' survivors. "Killen is a product of his environment," Pagano adds. "[It was essential] to see his environment wider to get a sense of where he lives. You'll notice the amount of close-ups of Killen are few." Perversely, Killen is free to spout his ignorant ruminations while the families of Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney are eternally ensnared by the trauma they've endured.

Pressed on whether or not she feels that the film could foster sympathy for Killen's short-sightedness, Dickoff replies, "Some people feel we push the limits of freedom of speech by giving Killen a forum to spout his beliefs and spew his hate," she replied. "[But] I think we should all try to understand where Killen came from...sympathy for him doesn't equal approval." Pagano almost feels as though Killen's political incorrectness deserved more rhetorical control. "I wish we'd put in some more racy stuff," he says. "Killen really [went] after the homosexuals. He [went] after everyone...There are several times in there that he goes off on the coalition, about them being ‘faggots'...that we didn't put in. He's one of the most cunning, smartest, non-educated men I've ever met in my life."

As Neshoba makes clear by its resolution, the insidious intelligence of men like Killen, who have maintained their views and community stature by feeding local anxieties, has allowed the region's racism to persistently manifest itself in subtle ways. The reference to "the price of freedom" in the film's title is thus both a celebration of the efforts of civil rights activists and a reminder that democracy will always allow a safe harbor for hate until it veers into criminal territory, as Killen's did. "Edgar Ray Killen was convicted for what he did, not for what he believed," says Dickoff. "And we have to keep that in the forefront."

 

Edgar Ray Killen (center) following his conviction for manslaughter. From Micki Dickoff and Tony Pagano's Neshoba: The Price of Freedom. Courtesy of Pro Bono Productions and Pagano Productions

 

But where does a place like Philadelphia go from here? The indictment (and surprising conviction) of Edgar Ray Killen for manslaughter has proved a somewhat unsatisfactory victory that still required nimble political deftness; one can't help but feel that after over 40 years, the wound is still raw and throbbing. "Killen is a scapegoat," intones Pagano. "Let's face it. Killen was prosecuted...because he's the poorest [of the living conspirators]. And he's got the biggest mouth. And the state is never gonna go after anyone else. They're just waiting for those people to die. There are only four alleged [conspirators] left." But Pagano also admits that racism has metamorphosed, even in Neshoba County. "In that community specifically, it's economic. If you're black and I'm white, and we both go into a bank to get a home loan, I'm getting that house and you're not. The railroad tracks still literally divide the town."

 

Dr. Carolyn Goodman (center),mother of the slain civil rights activist Andrew Goodman. From Micki Dickoff and Tony Pagano's Neshoba: The Price of Freedom. Courtesy of Pro Bono Productions and Pagano Productions

 

Dickoff, too, views the fight against discrimination in Neshoba as an uphill battle, but remarkable responses to screenings of the film throughout the American South have made the task seem less Sisyphean. "The film has a way of making people open up," she says, "especially
if they're angry or upset, because it makes them think about race in a way that they never thought about before. Leroy Clemons, the co-chair of the Philadelphia Coalition, brought his family to see the film. And they came to this discussion afterward and his daughter, who had just graduated from college, said, ‘This is the first time that I feel good about my community. I was not going to come
back to Philadelphia, Mississippi, but now that I see this hope I'm gonna come back and try to work on it.' "

Neshoba: The Price of Freedom opens September 10 in Los Angeles through First Run Features.

Joseph Jon Lanthier is a cultural critic and vegan currently living in the San Francisco Bay Area.