The struggle for civil rights was filled with drama and danger, so it’s little wonder that Alan Parker’s 1989 film is such a classic for showcasing the violent side of the Civil Rights Movement. This sample essay explores the ways in which the film discusses the violent nature of the struggle for equal rights, and offers different perspectives on the conflict.
The struggle for civil rghts in Mississippi Burning
Alan Parker’s 1989 film, Mississippi Burning explores the more violent side of the Civil Rights Movement as it dramatizes the 1967 case of U.S. vs. Cecil Price et al. This case centered around the disappearance of three civil rights activists who were murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi in a group that also included law enforcement personnel. In addition to being a thriller film whose plot is about solving a murder case, Mississippi Burning also examines the cultural and social relationships of binaries—blacks and whites, Northerners and Southerners, and oppression and fairness.
The struggle of race and civil rights
The central focus of the film is, of course, the power struggle between blacks and whites living in Mississippi. This binary struggle carries itself through the film, with whites being portrayed as oppressors and blacks as victims. Given that the film is based on U.S. vs. Cecil Price et al., this coding of protagonist and victim makes sense. Throughout the film, blacks are attacked and harassed, and the symbolism and thematic message is made clearest in the montage late in the film that contrasted black families congregating together juxtaposed against white Klan members burning black churches.
Though the film places the mass burnings late in the story arc, the montage is depicting events from the twenty burned churches that happened in 1964, prior to the federal investigation into the disappearance of the civil rights workers (“Mississippi Burning Trial: A Chronology”). During this montage in the film, black church members are singing while white men in hoods cause a series of explosions and fires that burn down rickety wooden buildings, showing the black poverty that was in place before the “heat” of the Klan and white society’s anger lashed out at them.
Of course, the church is a powerful social tool that the white dominant culture would fear, as it offers refuge, a voice for unified ideas, and a message of equality and fairness. Many churches were staging grounds for civil rights’ action, and black ministers were important figures in the movement, including leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr.
Though there is a seeming disconnect in a “God-fearing” organization such as the Klan burning churches, it is better understood once the political and social power of black churches were to the civil rights movement. Thus, these church burnings are the focal point of the most dramatic spectacle in the film, and it is one of the clearest symbols of the black versus white binary in the film. Therefore, the black and white binary in the film revolves around oppression and disruption, denying black Mississippians the power of their voice or to congregate, a clear principle of the Jim Crow laws.
Of course, much of this oppression is the result of Southern identity. The character of Rupert Anderson tells the character of Alan Ward about how his father and other conspirators poisoned the farm animals of a black neighbor. As Ward recounts, his father asked, “If you ain’t better than a nigger, than what are you better than?” (Mississippi Burning). After Reconstruction, blacks were given the right to vote and specific federal rights that were distorted or denied through state laws that became known as Jim Crow laws.
Protagonists in Mississippi Burning
The film establishes its Northern and Southern binary theme through the two protagonists, by-the-book “Kennedy boy” Northern agent Alan Ward and former Mississippi deputy Rupert Anderson (Mississippi Burning). Anderson clearly establishes himself as the agent who knows the cultural morés, whereas Ward is less tolerant and aware of the prejudice and power imbalance displayed in small-town Mississippi society. Anderson’s ideology and behavior is reminiscent of Northern thinking and acting during Reconstruction, the period following the Civil War when the federal government tried to reshape Southern society to give more power and protection of rights to blacks living in the South.
In this way, he is characterized as having the right intentions but they are misplaced because he is trying to too quickly disrupt a culture, which was the failure of Reconstruction. This is made most evident in the lunch counter scene in which Ward literally silences a diner by sitting at the counter reserved for “colored” people and trying to engage a black patron named Hollis in a conversation.
Though Hollis reacts in a manner that was respectful but completely cold, he is later attacked at home by members of the Klan. Thus the film shows that Ward might mean well but his actions actually make the situation worse for the people he is trying to help. As Comer Vann Woodward notes, “emancipation precipitated an immediate and revolutionary separation of races… which, in its essence, remained unaltered until the middle of the twentieth century” (25).
Ward has not learned the lesson from Reconstruction that outside influence, regardless of its moral certainty or righteousness, will not be accepted by Southerners who are trying to hold to their heritage—which also includes domination over blacks. Ward escalates the issue, bringing in federal troops reminiscent of the federal occupation of Southern governments during Reconstruction.
In retaliation, at least in the film’s portrayal, white violence and aggression escalates against blacks. The lunch counter incident and beating of Hollis escalates into a federal occupation and domestic terrorism. When the trial is first heard in Mississippi court, the judge rules that “outside influences,” code for Northern aggression, drove the men to commit the acts they did, further evidence of the Northern/Southern binary and another example of the South’s dislike of Northern interference, even 100 years after the conclusion of the Civil War. While the FBI eventually solves the case and convicts the main conspirators, the sentences are unusually light. This shows that al elements of Southern society, from breaking bread to upholding law is still affected by the dichotomy and struggle of North versus South.
The issue of oppression versus fairness is also central to the film and to understanding the climate for civil rights in the South. The film makes the black vote as central to the motivation behind the killings of the civil rights workers. In the scene at the social club, Deputy Pell makes explicit that white oppression of black votes was the key to maintaining the status quo and was at the top of the agenda for white supremacist groups such as the KKK (Mississippi Burning). The conviction was not for murder, but for civil rights violations, which means that the struggle in this film was bigger than the lives of three people and instead hinged on the rights of a whole group.
Though Mississippi Burning is very much a Hollywood production of a real event and includes its fair share of embellishment, it successfully depicts the binary oppositions at work in Southern culture during the early 1960s. These oppositions revolved around issues of black versus white culture, issues of Northern versus Southern origin, and issues of oppression versus fairness. The case of U.S. versus Cecil Price et al. was a documentation of some of the last outward and aggressive protest to integration that was begun shortly after the end of the Civil War.
Though racism is still present today, much the violence and struggle that occurred during the 1960s amounted to the death throes of the culture of white dominance that was founded plantation agriculture from the formation of the first colonies and states and the final acts of Reconstruction realized. The binary lives of blacks and whites were finally being integrated, and it included all of the reluctance, violence, and manifestation of good character and bad to accomplish.
Mississippi Burning. Dir. Alan Parker. Perf. Gene Hackman and Willem Defoe. Orion, 1989. Film.
Woodward, Comer V. The Strange Career of Jim Crowe. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1955. eBook.
“Mississippi Burning Trial: A Chronology” Famous Trials: U.S. vs Cecil Price et al. (“Miossissippi Burning” Trial). UMKC School of Law, n.d. Web. 06 Dec. 2013.