A film by Micki Dickoff & Tony Pagano
Emmy award-winning filmmaker Micki Dickoff was 17 in 1964, the year Freedom Summer sent people south to register African American voters. "I wanted to go but my father wouldn’t let me," Dickoff told a packed audience at the New York premiere of NESHOBA, a gripping 90-minute documentary about the murders of civil rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner in Neshoba County, Mississippi. "When the three boys were killed it haunted me."
Years later, Dickoff continued to think about the incident. Specifically, she wondered if Neshoba County had come to terms with its racist past, or if the area remained as racially segregated as it had been during the first half of the 20th century. Teaming up with award-winning filmmaker Tony Pagano, the pair spent four-and-a-half years probing for answers, along the way interviewing Mississippians of all political leanings and backgrounds.
The result, NESHOBA, zooms in on Neshoba Country and provides a detailed history of the area and residents’ reactions to racial shifts. At the same time, it addresses the ways local police and the Ku Klux Klan worked in tandem with the FBI and Department of Justice to preserve a white-dominated status quo in the murders’ aftermath. Dick Molpus, a pro-civil rights activist, sums it up: "For 40 years our state judicial system has allowed murderers to roam our land."
Key leaders in 1960s politics—from Mississippi Senator James Eastland, the pro-segregation chair of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, to the state’s overtly-racist governor, Ross Barnett, to local civil rights champions—are introduced using archival footage. In addition, surviving members of the Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner families—recently interviewed parents and siblings—offer compelling insights about their kin, humanizing them and fueling our understanding of their commitment to equality.
The voices of countless Neshoba natives add to the mix, exemplifying both racial progress and resistance to integration. Some, like Deborah Posey and Jewel McDonald, one white, one Black, are members of the Philadelphia Coalition, a multiracial organization seeking racial reconciliation. NESHOBA recognizes the Coalition’s push to uncover what really happened, organizing that led the County district attorney and Mississippi attorney general to re-investigate and charge Edgar Ray Killen.
While Killen comes across as an old-school bigot who makes repeated quips about commie-Jewish-Christ killers, the film nonetheless presents him as a scapegoat. The point is simple: Killen did not act alone. More than 20 Klansmen were rumored to have taken part in the killings, and while some were indicted by the federal government in 1967, only seven served minimal prison time. What actually happened on the farm where the bodies were found six weeks after they disappeared remains buried. Justice, Pagano and Dickoff argue, demands that all involved have their day in court and tell the world what actually transpired.
Dickoff believes that justice requires a reckoning with racism’s legacy: "With a Black man running for president—unthinkable 40 years ago—our film serves as a reminder of how far we’ve come in race relations and how far we need to go."