First, A Brief Recap of the Book
The Help by Kathryn Stockett, a marvelous and moving story, is set in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s. Three women narrators speak in alternate chapters: Skeeter, a white girl in her twenties; Aibileen, a 53-year-old black maid who has spent her life raising white children; and Minny, a 36-year-old black maid who speaks out too much for her own good. Skeeter decides she wants to write a documentary book about black maids. She convinces Aibileen and Minny to help with the secret and even dangerous project. As more people get involved, the risk spreads and the tension and suspense are heightened.
Rethinking the Premise
The risk these women were taking is not immediately clear to those who were not alive in the Sixties. In The Help, although fear was expressed, there were no harmful consequences for the women involved in the project. In real life, however, racism was so virulent that whites helping blacks had their lives imperiled. This post recounts the fate of two whites from the north who came south in 1964 to help blacks register for the vote. Perhaps it can convey a flavor of what the atmosphere was like back then, not so very long ago.
In 1964, two white New Yorkers, Andrew Goodman, 20, and Michael Schwerner, 24, came to Meridian, Mississippi as part of “Freedom Summer,” a volunteer program bringing young people from around the country to the South to help register black voters. On June 21st, these two young men along with black Mississippian James Chaney, 21, drove to Neshoba County to look into the burning of a Black church that had been a meeting place for civil rights groups.
The three were tipped off that their station wagon’s license number had been given to members of the white supremacist Citizens Council and the Ku Klux Klan, so before leaving Meridian they informed other workers of their plans and set up check-in times in accordance with standard security procedures. But they were never heard from again.
Late that afternoon, Neshoba County deputy Cecil Price —a member of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan — stopped their car and arrested Chaney for speeding. He booked all three into the jail. During the hours they were held incommunicado in jail, Price notified his Klan associates (according to later testimony) who assembled and planned how to kill the three civil rights workers.
After the three were fined and released, Price followed them to the edge of town, where he pulled them over with his police siren. He held them until the Klan murder squad arrived. They were taken to an isolated spot where James Chaney was severely beaten and possibly mutilated, and all three were shot to death. Schwerner and Goodman were each shot once in the heart; Chaney, the lone African-American, was shot three times. Their car was driven into a swamp and set on fire, and their bodies buried in an earthen dam with a bulldozer.
After a 44-day search, FBI agents dug the bodies from under 15 feet of dirt. (While they were looking, they found the bodies of at least seven other blacks allegedly thrown there by the Klan.) The state never charged anyone with murder, and federal statutes against murder did not exist at the time.
Instead, the federal government tried 18 men on charges of conspiring to violate the civil rights of the victims. Seven were convicted and served prison sentences of less than six years. Eight were acquitted. A local preacher who had been strongly implicated in the murders, ironically named Edgar Ray Killen, went free. [In 2005, the trial was reopened and Killen was finally convicted (but only of manslaughter) at the age of 80.]
The case was dramatized in the movie ”Mississippi Burning,” which was the FBI code name for the case.
The outrage over what happened to the three young men sharply increased public support for the Civil Rights Movement, paving the way for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.