“Mississippi—Is This America? (1962–1964)” is the title of the fifth episode of the first part of the documentary series Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Movement, 1954–1985 (1987). The series, created and produced by Henry Hampton and narrated by Julian Bond, explores the history of the US civil rights movement between 1954 and 1965. Topics highlighted in the episode include the formation of the South’s first White Citizens’ Council; the 1963 assassination of Medgar Evers; the 1964 Freedom Summer; Bob Moses’s role in organizing a massive voter registration drive and establishing freedom schools; the 1964 murders of activists Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner; and Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
The title of the episode is a rhetorical question that can be understood on multiple levels. It stresses the idea that Mississippi was a racist violent place and the absolute antithesis of America. The question also suggests that while the state was the most regionally distinctive in the South, its problems constituted a matter of national concern. Footage shows Pres. John F. Kennedy admonishing the nation that “it is not enough to pin the blame on others, to say it is the problem of one section of the country or another”; rather, everyone must take responsibility. Finally, the episode demonstrates that black Mississippians and their allies very much believed that Mississippi was a part of the United States and were willing to fight for their rights as American citizens in the face of persistent violence. The documentary shows Hamer speaking at the Democratic National Convention, asking the same question of the American public: “I question America. Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off of their hooks because our lives be threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings in America?”
The episode begins with Roy Wilkins, executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, announcing, “There is no state with a record that approaches that of Mississippi in inhumanity, murder, and brutality and racial hatred. It is absolutely at the bottom of the list.” Viewers later learn that Wilkins’s assessment represented a response to the disappearance and murder of Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner. Wilkins also asserts, “We view this as a cold, brutal, deliberate killing in a savage, uncivilized state; the most savage uncivilized state in the entire fifty states.” The bulk of the episode underscores the ferocious commitment to violence evidenced by most of Mississippi’s white population. The stories of Evers’s assassination and the discovery of Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner’s bodies buried in an earthen dam incorporate emotional footage from the victims’ families. More than twenty years later, Myrlie Evers, Medgar’s widow, recalled how danger “was simply in the air”: “you knew something was going to happen.” When Medgar Evers arrived at home, the family heard gunfire outside, and the children immediately “fell to the floor as he had taught them to do.” Then she opened the door, discovered her husband bleeding in the driveway, and began to scream at the neighbors. The narrator then explains how “civil rights leaders and sympathetic whites traveled to the South to see firsthand the state called the ‘closed society,’” invoking the title of a book by James Silver that coincidentally was published on the day Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner disappeared. The film uses the metaphor of the closed society, in which white Mississippians defend white supremacy against any social change at all costs, to underscore the conviction that Mississippi’s violence was the most virulent in the South.
The idea of Mississippi exceptionalism juxtaposed with the democratic ideals of American equality not only permits the filmmakers to highlight the state as a vulgar, sadistic society but also allows them to hold the nation responsible. Broadly speaking, Mississippi can be seen as a reflection of America’s bigotry and tolerance of inequality. The documentary shows footage of Dave Dennis, a member of Congress of Racial Equality who lent his vehicle to the three murdered civil rights activists, offering a passionate yet defiant eulogy at Chaney’s funeral: “I not only blame the people who pulled the trigger or did the beating or dug the hole with the shovel . . . but I blame the people in Washington D.C. This is our country, too.”
- American Experience, “Eyes on the Prize, America’s Civil Rights Movement, 1954–1985,” PBS website, www.pbs.org
- Clayborne Carson, David J. Garrow, Gerald Gill, Vincent Harding, and Darlene Clark Hine, The Eyes on the Prize Reader: Documents, Speeches, and Firsthand Accounts from the Black Freedom Struggle (1991)
- Joseph Crespino, in The Myth of Southern Exceptionalism, ed. Matthew D. Lassiter and Joseph Crespino (2010)
- Juan Williams, Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954–1965 (1987)