Southern Movie 51: “Murder in Mississippi” (1965)

Dogmatic, cheaply produced, and poorly acted, 1965’s Murder in Mississippi appears to be an attempt to rush out a pro-Civil Rights film at the height of the violence in the Deep South. Released the year after the 1964 murders of Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner, and directed by Joseph P. Mawra, the film follows a carload of Civil Rights workers who head south to help with voter registration. 

The opening scenes of Murder in Mississippi are mixed with joviality and tension. A group of young people ride down the highway in a convertible. There are five of them in all: two black men, one black woman, one white man (who we will find out is Jewish), and one white woman. They are all clean cut, nice-looking, and appear to be in their late teens or early twenties. As lively but frenetic music plays, the car rolls along with one of the black men driving and the one white woman in the passenger seat. Titling shows us the names of states they are passing through, and we know they are going south. As these first few moments go by, the credits roll, and they are pulled over by a police officer. Of course, despite their playful energy during the ride, the movie is titled Murder in Mississippi, and they’re an interracial group heading south, so we know that whatever happens won’t be good.

With the credits passed and the convertible back on the road, our attention is shifted to the sheriff’s office. The scene begins with a chubbyguy playing a nylon strong guitar and singing, for no apparent reason, then Deputy Bob comes in quickly and reports to Sheriff Engstrom what he has just seen. The sheriff says, “Better bring ’em in,” to which the deputy replies, “On what charge?” His answer is: “Any damn charge,” then he rattles off a list of possible options. The deputy knows what to do, and as he is leaving, the sheriff stops him and says that he ought to get Phil and Andy Loving to help him. After Bob is gone, the sheriff leans back in his chair and appears deep in thought.

Nearby, at a ratty-looking building, we see our young Civil Rights workers get their orientation. The man speaking to them, Paul, is handsome and muscular and very serious. He tells them that efforts to register black voters have so far been unsuccessful, for two reasons: the registration office moves both its location and its hours at random, and any new voter must be vouched-for by a registered voter. The pretty young white woman who has just arrived, Carol Byrd, muses, “I’d hated to be the first white person to vouch for a Negro voter.” The leader agrees and reminds them once again that it “will be no picnic.” They must reply with “sir” even to angry whites who spit on them, because they have one aim – to register black voters – and maybe, just maybe, a few local blacks will realize that they really do have some rights. The newbies get up and shuffle off, and the scene ends with the young black woman Sally telling Paul that they’ll be alright.

But really they won’t be. In the next scene, a police car pulls the convertible over, with only Carol in it. Though we don’t hear the exchange, she shows her driver’s license then motions back down the road in reply to the questions. We know that she pointing out where the Civil Rights workers’ office is. 

Next we see, the whole carload of them is being pulled into the sheriff’s office by the deputy and two other men, presumably the Phil and Andy mentioned earlier. As the five outsiders are lined up, the black man who was driving earlier tries to sit but is admonished to stand up. Once the five are told to sit, one of the white men takes the chair from the one who tried to sit, making him sit on the floor instead. The sheriff then comes over and  asks where they’re from. Philadelphia . . . New York . . . then Carol says, “Virginia.” The sheriff responds, “Ooh, a real Southern belle!” but he is not impressed, and tells the group that he can’t let them just walk into town, take over, start riots, and cause problems. He explains that his is a good, peaceful, Baptist community, and it will stay that way. One of the swarthy-looking men says he wants to quit wasting time and run them out, but the sheriff says that he’ll give them a chance to leave on their own.

As the others leave, Sheriff Engstrom, Phil, and Andy hold back the young black man Luther, who was driving the convertible earlier and tried to sit before being told that he could. They sit him down and surround him, making threatening insinuations, but Luther says that he will stay, that he has a job to do. So, Phil and Andy beat him up.

Back the Civil Rights office, Luther is bloody and being consoled by his friends. He says that he is OK, but Carol is appalled that this has happened. Tyrone, the other young black man who rode down in the convertible, says that he should have helped, but Luther reminds him that he was too scared. Tyrone objects to the characterization, then Paul steps in to warn Luther about being too strong-willed. He calls the small group over to the map and assigns them places to canvas. 

They don’t last long, and Phil and Andy are hauling three of them back into Sheriff Engstrom’s office again. This time, Engstrom takes out a clipboard and begins taking down their names and other information. We find out that Tyrone goes to Temple University in Philadelphia and that the young Jewish man Bernie goes to City College of New York. Carol, on the other hand, is a Virginia blue blood, the daughter of a judge in Richmond and the niece of the state attorney, and she breaks into a rant about being tired of apologizing for the bigotry of the South!

This really angers Sheriff Engstrom, who says never to apologize for him, then he proceeds to have Bob type up a confession for Bernie to sign, saying that Bernie admits to stealing a typewriter from a local stationary store. Bernie objects that the town doesn’t even have a stationary store, but the sheriff is undeterred. He then tells Bob to type up another confession for Tyrone, saying that he has been sharing a bed with Carol. These are the final incitements to leave town and can be rendered null and void if they clear out.

But Tyrone won’t sign. So Sheriff Engstrom begins to beat him, which leads Bernie to intervene, which leads Bob to jump up and pull his gun, which leads Bernie and Bob to struggle, which leads Bob to shoot Bernie dead! Carol flies out of her chair to him, but Bernie is already gone, and Tyrone shouts, “I hate it here! I wish all you white bastards where dead!” Carol objects to this affront against all white people, shouting back, “Bernie died for you!” But Tyrone is hearing none of it. Full of fear and anger, Tyrone proclaims that Carol is just like these bigots in Mississippi who regard all blacks in the negative same way. Carol disagrees, but Tyrone is unhinged and tries to fight his way out of the room. Yet, there are too many of them, and the four racists overtake Tyrone and choke the life out of him.

Though the term won’t become popular for decades, we see Carole as the embodiment of white privilege. Unlike Tyrone or Luther, or even Bernie, she has her whiteness on her side— and she knows it. After everyone leaves the sheriff’s office, Phil and Andy take Carole out in the woods, most likely to rape and kill her and to bury the other bodies. As they drag her through the woods, she struggle a bit then breaks into a diatribe about how they may have killed her friends, but they’ll be hanged for sure if they kill her, a white woman. Do you know I am, she asks, and reminds them that she is the daughter of a judge and the sister of movie star Dick Byrd.

When they seem swayed by the anecdote about her brother, Carol eggs it on, promising that he’ll bring them each $5,000 if they help her escape. Phil and Andy then weigh the options and decide that $10,000 would get them a long way from Mississippi, where Engstrom couldn’t touch them. The deal sounds good, so the trio goes to a phone booth and calls her brother. He is to bring $10,0000 and meet them in room 3B of a local motel.

Back at the Civil Rights workers’ meeting place, Sally is pacing around while Luther and another young black man clean up the space. As Sally begins to make a phone call, Sheriff Engstrom and Deputy Bob show up. The sheriff first asks the new character who he is, and he replies, “Carl Montgomery, sir” in a mousy little voice. With no provocation at all, the two lawmen arrest mousy Carl, and Luther asks forcefully, “On what charge?” The sheriff tells Luther that he needed to stay up North and that he can only find out the charge if he’s in a jail cell, too. Luther stares coldly, and the sheriff leaves. Sally watches the whole scene from behind the podium. Luther tells her to call Murray, the head man from up North, to get the FBI, then he tells her, “I’m not going to sit around on my butt.”

When Dick Byrd, Carole’s brother, arrives, he is surprisingly not agitated at all. Smooth and smirking, Dick checks into his little motel, which apparently has room service, and orders bottle, a rare sirloin, and the skins of two baked potatoes. 

Across town though, Paul is very agitated and sweating profusely. He is in a small bedroom, presumably hiding from Engstrom, and talking to Sally, who reports what’s going on. Paul remarks that he has done it again, lost three more Civil Rights workers. Sally then tries to soothe him, first lighting him a fresh cigarette then turning off the light so they can smooch and whatever else.

In yet another location, Carole is being held in a trash-strewn, cobweb-covered shack. The scene begins with Andy telling his brother Phil that he won’t stand aside while Phil rapes her. Then leave, Phil tells him, reaching over and ripping off Carole’s shirt. The two brothers then bicker over who will go meet Dick, and Andy gets the job. Phil reminds him not to get any funny ideas with the money, and as soon as he leaves, Phil forces himself on Carole.

By now, there’s a lot going on in Murder in Mississippi, so our attention is shifted again. Luther is out on the dirt road with his clipboard, trying to talk people into voting. But he gets turned away over and over. Meanwhile, Sally is seen leaving the little shack where Paul is hiding, carrying a briefcase, and we see her working hard as well to get some black folks registered. Sally spends some time with a lady named Mrs. Moore on the porch of a ramshackle house training the woman how to answer the questions that registrars will ask.

Just as we see the Civil Rights workers out doing good in the community, Phil is back at the shack trying coax Carole into sex by offering the hungry, half-naked woman a bite of his greasy chicken. Carole is ruffled and pleading for food, but Phil says, “Naw, you ain’t hungry enough yet.” 

Back at his motel, Dick gets a visit from Sally, who reminds him that she is friends with Carole. Dick is on the phone with the mayor because the kidnappers haven’t shown up yet, when she knocks on the door. After Dick reminisces for a moment about his work in the theater, Sally tells him that, like him, she doesn’t know where Carole is. Dick says not to worry since the sheriff is coming over, and just as Sally begins to lament, Engstrom shows up. He sees Sally and murmurs a remark about her still being around, then she leaves. He talks to Dick, who asks how long this ransom business will take; he has an important part he is rehearsing. (Keep in mind, this is a guy whose sister has been kidnapped.) The two men go back and forth about the kidnapping, and Engstrom says that it’s best to leave it to him to handle.

Out on the road, Luther is still going door to door. He stops at a house where he has a heavily scripted dialogue with a shirtless, middle-aged farmer named Mr. Taylor, while his wife and child listen nearby. The farmer is wary, reminding Luther that they all have to live there after people like him leave. Luther remains obstinate in the face of the man who claims that the Civil Rights workers “make trouble for us.” After a few moments, Luther’s tenacity has angered Taylor, and he calls his wife and child into the house, putting Luther back out on the road.

Back again at the motel, Dick is visited by pretty, young black woman. He answers the door, and she says, “Sheriff told me to come up here and take care of you.” Dick responds, “Well, Southern hospitality.”  She quickly takes off her clothes and climbs into bed with him, as Dick is made to understand she does as the sheriff tells her. As they roll into the covers, Andy comes in through the hallway window to talk about the ransom. Dick has to get out of bed, and he casually hands Andy $10,000 in cash then asks about Carole. Andy says that she’ll be at the corner of Highway 1 and Route 41 at 6:00 the next morning. Dick plays it cool, points his finger, and says she’d better be. (Dick is obviously a complete idiot.)

Now, it’s time for some turnabout-is-fair-play. Luther has left the dirt road and is wandering in woods, when he stumbles on the shack where Carole is being held. Inside, she is gnawing on the remnants of the chicken, and a shirtless, sweaty Phil decides its time to make his move. But Carole bites his lip, drawing blood— and about that time, Luther arrives! He loses it like Tyrone did earlier and attacks Phil, calling him, “Animal! Animal!” At first Phil is getting the best of Luther, but Luther comes back and chokes Phil out.

Next we see, Phil is being smacked awake by Sheriff Engstrom who has obviously figured out the ransom scheme. But Carole and Luther are gone! They are running for their lives through the woods, while the bigots and their dogs searching diligently. This goes on for a few moments with excitable music playing, until Carole and Luther are exhausted. In something of a tender moment, Luther offers his white button-down to Carole , whose dress has been ripped open, and she accepts the kind gesture. She lays her head in his lap, and they kiss. However, they are discovered mid-embrace, and in a particularly disturbing scene, Luther is overtaken, held down, and castrated as he screams wildly. 

At the sheriff’s office afterward, there is a straight-laced FBI agent questioning first the sheriff then Carole. He is investigating the disappearance of Tyrone and Bernie, and doesn’t appear phased by the fact that Carole is dirty, wearing tattered clothes, and obvious distraught. The sheriff claims that she was raped by Luther. All the FBI man can do is say that isn’t over yet and leave. After he is gone, Dick sits slyly on the sheriff’s desk and makes a deal with Engstrom to have Carole testify in a way that will exonerate the Mississippi bigots and clear her of all charges.

In the movie’s last ten minutes, we find the whole gang appearing before the United States Commission. Bernie’s father comes in and speaks to Carole, asking where Bernie is, but Carole says that she doesn’t know. The commissioner (judge) is a woman who is very Southern, very rude, and very unfriendly to the cause of Civil Rights. She argues with every word the prosecutor says, then he calls Carole to testify. But going against the plan, Carole immediately begins to shout the truth: Engstrom killed Tyrone and Bernie and castrated Luther. However, the recalcitrant judge will not hear any of it, claiming that there is no evidence and that the law doesn’t cover what the prosecutor is alleging. It is clear to us viewers: the legal system in Mississippi is blind to justice. The bigots love it, and they cheer for the judge’s ludicrous ruling! Even Dick congratulates the sheriff, who tells Carole that he will forgive her for all of the lies she has told.

However, a befuddled Carole resists. Dick tries to take her home, but she wrinkles her brow and proclaims that she has now become fully involved. She will not return with Dick. She will stay in Mississippi after seeing what happened to Bernie, Tyrone, and Luther. Her brother can’t believe it, but she tells him, “Either you’re on his side, or ours.” Dick then asks Engstrom how he expects to win this battle over Civil Rights, and Engstrom replies, “You don’t win, you just hang on as long as you can.”

As he is saying this, Deputy Bob appears with an order from the mayor to sign a petition that allows a new group of Civil Rights activists to have a parade. Engstrom won’t sign it, but Deputy Bob says that “the big man” says he has to. Now, out of the blue, a turncoat Dick begins to have a laugh at the sheriff’s predicament, mocking the “dirty politics” of it all. Engstrom signs the document, and Deputy Bob asks him what he’s doing. Engstrom replies, “Hangin’ on.”

The film ends with scenes from the movement, including footage of Lyndon B. Johnson and the March on Washington. 

If you look on IMDb at the personal quotes attributed to director Joseph P. Mawra, you’ll find this: “We never set out to make anything that would be remembered— it was just about getting quick product into the theaters.” After watching Murder in Mississippi, I believe it. Looking up reviews and information on the film yields almost nothing, a fact that is underpinned by the Norman Rockwell painting on the same name and year and by the fact most search results bring up actual murders in Mississippi. 

While I understand the necessity of creating films that comment on social justice issues, I can’t understand this one, which couldn’t have contributed anything to the national dialogue in 1965. Its characters are mostly stereotypes, its plot is predictable, the dialogue is cardboard, the acting is terrible, all the things.

To me, the most compelling aspects of this film about the South are the troubling actions of Carole Byrd and her brother Dick. Neither Sheriff Engstrom, Deputy Bob, Phil nor Andy are surprising in any way. Frankly, neither are most of the Civil Rights workers. But knowing what we do about the rigor with which Civil Rights organizations vetted and trained volunteers – especially white volunteers – for service in the South, Carole’s entitled, privileged, half-baked noblesse oblige and her completely undisciplined approach to her work are impossible to buy into. Moreover, her brother Dick comes to Mississippi, after having been raised in the South, with an extremely flippant, la-tee-dah attitude about two rednecks who’ve kidnapped his sister. Moreover, when he is approached, unsolicited, by a young black prostitute who tells him that the sheriff basically has her bound to involuntary servitude, he has a la-tee-dah attitude about taking her bed, too. Perhaps Carole is the film’s changed character, when she faces the truth in the end, while Dick essentially sides with the bigoted sheriff and the two men who kidnapped his sister. If that’s the case, if our focus is on Carole’s growth from a naive do-gooder to real believer, then once again, we have a problematic film that focuses not on the brutality leveled on black Southerners but on yet another white conversion narrative. (I’ve written about this before in posts about The Klansman and The Liberation of LB Jones.)

Murder in Mississippi may be a throwaway film, but it goes without saying that somebody who didn’t know any better saw it and bought into what they saw. Sure, there are some grains of truth here – stereotypes don’t come from nowhere – but the devil is in the details. I just hope that whoever saw this film and was inspired (or disgusted ) by it— I just hope they took the time to look closer into what the facts were.

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