Mississippi Burning Historical Background

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Mississippi Burning

Historical Backgroundfbi missing posterhttp://static.rogerebert.com/uploads/movie/movie_poster/mississippi-burning-1988/large_usukduqwx0l4rrumxnqugr1tu4n.jpg

The mysterious circumstances surrounding a case in 1964 of the disappearance and eventual murders of three civil rights workers is the backdrop for this powerful film produced in 1988. James Chaney, age 21 (black), Andrew Goodman, age 20 (white) and Michael Schwerner, age 24 (white) headed south to Mississippi, as volunteers for a program called Freedom Summer. The program focused on voter registration for blacks in the “closed” state of Mississippi. Immediately after their arrival they were arrested by the local police and later found shot to death.

As this was a time of great tension and unrest, due to the advancement of the Civil Rights Movement, there was massive media coverage and the FBI  was called in to investigate. For the next six weeks the story unfolds revealing racism, hatred and corruption on all levels. The director, Alan Parker released the film as a dramatisation of these  events. The names of the characters were changed.

Main Characters:

  • Gene Hackman as Agent Rupert Anderson (older FBI agent)

  • Willem Dafoe as Agent Alan Ward (younger FBI agent)

  • Frances McDormand as Mrs. Pell

  • Brad Dourif as Deputy Clinton Pell

  • Gailard Sartain as Sheriff Ray Stuckey

  • R. Lee Ermey as Mayor Tilman

  • Stephen Tobolowsky as Clayton Townley

  • Michael Rooker as Frank Bailey

  • Pruitt Taylor Vince as Lester Cowens

  • Badja Djola as Agent Monk

  • Kevin Dunn as Agent Bird

  • Tobin Bell as Agent Stokes

A Northerner and a Southerner

The two FBI agents (Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe) couldn’t be more different from one another and their approaches to solving the murders set them apart. Agent Alan Ward (Dafoe) is portrayed as a younger, “by the book” agent from the north, who is naive of race relations in the south, while Agent Rupert Anderson (Hackman), having been a former Mississippi sheriff, has first-hand experience, including the unspoken rules of the south. They often disagree on their methods, yet manage to learn from one another and solve the case together.


  1. Your Opinion

1. What were your first thoughts after having seen the film in its entirety? This film triggers many emotions. Write down some key words and share with another student.

2. Would you recommend this film to others? Why/why not?

  1. Towards the end of the film Agent Anderson re-visits the Deputy Sheriff’s wife. The Deputy Sheriff is a racist while his wife remains neutral. Her role is the dutiful wife.

    1. Do you sympathize with her?

    2. Who is responsible for bigotry and racism?

    3. Do we copy other people’s actions?

    4. Can racist people change?


  1. Comprehension Questions

  1. From the moment we are introduced to the local sheriff’s office we get a feel for which side they are on. What impressions did you have? Could you give any examples to support your thoughts?

  2. In a conversation between the two agents they discuss their admiration for the missing boys, yet Agent Anderson says that he feels that they were “being used”. Why and what does this imply?

  3. Agent Anderson visited the men’s barbershop twice in the course of the film. The first was at the start of the investigation and the second toward the end. How were these two scenes different?

  4. Agent Anderson: “You can talk to them but they won’t talk to you.” Why were black people afraid to speak with the FBI agents? Can you give examples of events in the film to support your answer?

  5. What did Agent Anderson notice in Mrs Pell’s wedding photograph?

  6. Why was a shot fired into the hotel room of the two agents and what was the significance of the burning cross outside?

  7. Why were the three men who were tried in court for arson not sentenced to prison? And why was there a rampage of fires afterwards?

  8. After viewing the burned home and barn of Aaron’s family, Agent Anderson says: “At least we know who did this.” Why does Agent Ward respond: “We did.”?

  9. At what point in the film does Agent Ward change his tactics and let Agent Anderson take over and why?

  10. Who called the KKK meeting and why?

  11. Why was the sheriff acquitted (declared innocent) at the end of the film?

  1. Writing Task

FBI missing poster: study the faces of the three men and imagine you are one of them. All three had their youth and their desire to work for a cause, in common. They chose to devote a summer to working for the civil liberties of blacks. Tragically, their humanitarian desires cost them their lives. Choose one of the young men and write a letter to his friend/family telling about his summer plans to visit Mississippi to register black voters. Mention his strong interest in working for this civil rights cause.

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