On June 21, 1964, three young civil rights activists, a 21 year-old black man from Meridian, Mississippi named James Chaney, and two white Jewish youth from New York, Andrew Goodman (21), and Michael Schwerner (25), were kidnapped and savagely murdered in Neshoba County in Philadelphia, Mississippi. They had been working in the 1964 Freedom Summer campaign to register African-American voters in Mississippi when they met their end at the hands of racist killers. At the time only 6.7% of black Mississippians were registered to vote.
One can imagine the American social realist Ben Shahn creating prints extolling the memory of the murdered civil rights activists, but it is harder to think of Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) doing the same. I always found his works too saccharine for my taste, though I respected his considerable skill as a painter. However, the postmodern art world long ago turned its collective back on Rockwell, regarding him disdainfully as a hopelessly old-fashioned “illustrator” and purveyor of quaint mythic Americanisms. But Rockwell’s homage to the heroes Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner—Murder in Mississippi, a dark and brooding work, revealed something not even Rockwell could veil.
Since its rise to prominence in the 1970s, postmodernism has not produced a single work of art as profound as this Rockwell painting.
Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner were arrested by Neshoba County police officer Cecil Price on a trumped up traffic violation. The three were held in the Neshoba County jail for several hours. During their brief imprisonment, officer Price, who was also a member of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, arranged with his fellow Klansmen the evening release and subsequent murder of the young men. Let out of jail at around ten in the evening after paying a fine, the trio attempted to drive out of town. Just as they were about to cross the county line officer Price stopped them once again, this time turning the three over to more than a dozen KKK terrorists. Goodman and Schwerner were each shot once in the heart, Chaney was beaten and shot three times. The men were then secretively buried beneath an earthen dam.
Fellow civil rights activists were naturally alarmed when Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner disappeared, and a manhunt was immediately launched. Hundreds of federal authorities were sent to Mississippi to conduct the search. Racist violence was no stranger to the black community of Mississippi or to Freedom Summer activists, that summer 37 black churches, businesses, and homes were firebombed by white supremacists. When the bodies of the three activists were at last found, the news gripped the nation. It had taken 44 days of searching before the badly decomposed bodies of the young men were located. The tenor of the times was well captured by Nina Simone in her 1964 song, Mississippi Goddam.
In the aftermath of the killings, no one was charged with the murders for four decades. Finally, on Jan. 6, 2005, a grand jury indicted Edgar Ray Killen on three counts of murder, the prosecution describing Killen as the mastermind of the assassinations and the one who assembled the men who would actually kill the three civil rights workers. On June 21, 2005, Killen, then 80-years old, was found guilty and sentenced to sixty-years in prison for manslaughter.
Rockwell’s first son Jarvis (one of three), posed in the painting as the central figure of Michael Schwerner. The artist tacked press photos of Schwerner to his easel as reference material during the process of painting.
The canvas was completed after five weeks of intense work, and Rockwell titled it, Murder in Mississippi.
The editors of Look magazine rejected the final painting (shown at top) for publication, arguing instead that Rockwell’s preparatory oil sketch for the canvas (shown at left) made for a more poignant illustration.
The study had taken the artist less than an hour to paint. Rockwell objected, but yielded to the editors on the matter.
The sketch was published in the June 29, 1965 edition of Look, and served as a single-page illustration for Southern Justice, a short article by famed civil-rights lawyer, Charles Morgan Jr. (1930-2009). The oil sketch became known by the title, Southern Justice.
Marking the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, and Norman Rockwell’s response to the politically motivated killings, the Mississippi Museum of Art presents Rockwell’s tour de force in a special exhibition titled, Norman Rockwell: Murder in Mississippi. Running from June 14 to August 31, 2014, the exhibit displays the original painting, oil sketch, and related ephemera.