Writer Florence L. Mars is most famous for opposing and writing about racist violence in her hometown. Born in Philadelphia, Mississippi, in Neshoba County, on 1 January 1923, she was the only child of Adam Longino Mars and Emily Geneva Johnson Mars. Mars’s father was a prominent lawyer, and her grandfather was one of the county’s largest landowners. Her family also owned Philadelphia’s leading department store. Florence attended the Philadelphia public schools and later Millsaps College in Jackson before transferring to the University of Mississippi, from which she graduated in 1944.
An early supporter of African American civil rights, Mars first came under fire in her community when she expressed support for the US Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which barred segregated schools. She spent the next several years outside of Mississippi, working as a photographer in New Orleans and traveling in Europe. In 1962 she returned to Philadelphia to raise cattle on a farm inherited from her paternal grandfather and to manage the Neshoba County stockyards, which she had purchased in 1957.
Mars is best known for her involvement in the FBI investigation into the 1964 killings of civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney. Her book, Witness in Philadelphia (1977), relates Neshoba County’s troubled racial history during the 1960s, particularly focusing on the murders, which were perpetrated by local law enforcement and Klansmen. Mars and her aunt, Ellen Spendrup, cooperated with the FBI to provide background information on the community and Klan activity in the area. The two women also testified before a federal grand jury in Biloxi about Sheriff Lawrence Rainey’s history of brutality toward African Americans. Mars’s actions resulted in threats to her physical safety and a Klan-orchestrated boycott of her stockyard that forced its closing and the sale of her cattle farm. Rainey retaliated against Mars by arresting her in 1965 on charges of drunk driving, an incident that shocked the white community and led to a decline in his influence.
Mars also wrote The Bell Returns to Mount Zion (1996), a sequel to Witness, and The Fair: A Personal History (2001), concerning the annual Neshoba County Fair. Mars’s photographs appeared in the New York Times and Time magazine. In June 2005, less than a year before her death on 23 April 2006, she was in the courtroom when Edgar Ray Killen was finally convicted in the deaths of the three civil rights workers.
- James T. Campbell and Elaine Owens, eds., Mississippi Witness: The Photographs of Florence Mars (2019)
- Seth Cagin and Philip Dray, We Are Not Afraid: The Story of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney and the Civil Rights Campaign for Mississippi (1988)
- Lynne Olson, Freedom’s Daughters: The Unsung Heroines of the Civil Rights Movement from 1830 to 1970 (2001)
- “Oral History with Miss Florence Mars, Native Mississippi Author” (1978), Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage, University of Southern Mississippi