Neshoba: A documentary about the past that teaches us about the present

My plan for the summer is to watch many documentaries and to read an equal number of books.  First up, I watched Neshoba: The Price of Freedom, a documentary by Micki Dickoff and Tony Pagano about the murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.  While the film documents what happened to these civil rights workers, and the broader struggle for civil rights in Mississippi, it is very much a story of the families of these three men.  It brings to life how their murders and the failure to secure justice on their behalf impacted family, friends, and the community at large (society as a whole).  Pushing the discussion beyond their place as icons and symbols, the film depicts them as sons, fathers, husbands, and brothers, giving voice to pain and suffering endured by their families.   Like Spike Lee’s Four Little Girls, the film challenges those who depict the civil rights movement as so far removed from our current moment, illustrating how the violence and injustice that took place during the 1960s continues to impact families and communities, elucidating how this history remains with us.

The film doesn’t merely focus on their murders and the civil rights movement, highlighting the struggle for justice.  While at times the film focuses too much attention on the trial of Edgar Ray Killen, who was found guilty of three counts of manslaughter in 2005 41 years after these three civil rights workers went missing, the emphasis here is important because it shows how the fight for justice was a fight for accountability, justice and racial reconciliation.

Beyond this, the film makes two really important points. (1) The civil rights movement was immensely violent.  Even as civil rights activists engaged in nonviolence, resisting Jim Crow through passive resistance, the movement itself was extremely violent.  Civil rights workers and those African Americans living under American Apartheid faced violence each and every day.  The film, in this regard, highlights the ways in which the civil rights movement engaged in “unviolence” (a term Charles Payne uses that he attributes to SNCC activist Worth Long), in that in the face intimidation, economic reprisals, physical abuse, torture, terror, sexual violence, and murder, “the movement” (those freedom fighters) choose not to respond in kind, to engage in self-defense, but to unviolent resist.  Neshoba reminds us about the violence endured and how that impacted lives.

(2) The film successfully highlights how race and racism impacted the societal reaction to these murders.  In the film, Rita Bender notes that media spotlight (and now historical focus) forced people to think “Whose son matter’s more.” The film makes clear that national attention about James Chaney and his violent death came about because he died alongside of Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman.  The fact that as authorities dragged the Mississippi River in search of the three civil rights workers only to discover 9 bodies lead many blacks to ask, “Who are these people,” and “where was the search parties, national attention, and overall concern about their well-being when they went missing.”  Looking at this historically, whether the murder of these civil rights workers, or the violence experienced by the Freedom Riders, we see white supremacy in action: violence carried out in the name of white supremacy but also in the value placed upon a white life over that of African Americans.  The historical illustration here got me thinking about how often a black life (or that of a person of color) is devalued.  We can see in the lack of media attention and national discourse concerning the noose at Santa Monica High School or the brutality experienced by Jordan Miles. In the war on drugs or in differential media coverage about the abduction of white women and women of color  we see how race impacts narratives.  We see whose life matters, whose humanity is highlighted, and whose experience is given public consideration, public concern, public outrage, public sympathy, and societal action.  While Neshoba brings to light the historic atrocity involving the civil rights movement, it powerfully documents the ways in which racism affords and denies humanity along racial lines not only in the past but also in our present moment.  We see not just the legacy of racism but its continued grip on society.

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