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At noon on Wednesday, February 27, as part of the department’s History Is Lunch series, James T. Campbell and Elaine Owens will discuss their new book Mississippi Witness: The Photographs of Florence Mars.

In June 1964, Neshoba County was the setting for one of the most notorious crimes of the civil rights era: the Klan-orchestrated murder of voting-rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. Captured on the road between Philadelphia and Meridian, the three were driven to a remote country crossroads, shot, and buried in an earthen dam, from which their bodies were recovered after a forty-four-day search.

The crime transfixed the nation. As federal investigators and an aroused national press corps descended on Neshoba County, white Mississippians closed ranks, dismissing the men’s disappearance as a hoax perpetrated by civil rights activists to pave the way for a federal “invasion” of the state.

“In this climate of furious conformity, only a handful of white Mississippians spoke out,” said Campbell. “Few did so more openly or courageously than Florence Mars.”

A fourth-generation Neshoban, Mars braved social ostracism and threats of violence to denounce the murders and decry the climate of fear and intimidation that had overtaken her community. She later recounted her experiences in Witness in Philadelphia, one of the classic memoirs of the civil rights era.

“Though few remember today, Mars was also a photographer,” said Owens.

Shocked by the ferocity of white Mississippians’ reaction to the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling against racial segregation, she bought a camera, built a darkroom, and began to take pictures, determined to document a racial order she knew was dying. Mississippi Witness features more than 100 of these photographs, most taken in the decade between 1954 and 1964, and most never before published. While a few depict public events—Mars photographed the 1955 trial of the murderers of Emmett Till—most feature private moments, illuminating the separate and unequal worlds of black and white Mississippians in the final days of Jim Crow.

“The powerful and evocative photographs in Mississippi Witness testify to the abiding dignity of human life even in conditions of cruelty and deprivation, as well as to the singular vision of one of Mississippi's—and the nation’s—most extraordinary photographers,” said Owens.

James T. Campbell is Edgar E. Robinson Professor in U.S. History at Stanford University. His previous books include Middle Passages: African American Journeys to Africa, 1787-2005. Elaine Owens recently retired as director of the image and sound section at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, where she helped to collect and curate the Florence Mars Collection.

The program will take place in the Craig H. Neilsen Auditorium at the Two Mississippi Museums—the Museum of Mississippi History and Mississippi Civil Rights Museum—located at 222 North Street, Jackson, MS 39201. There is no charge to attend. Copies of the book will be for sale. For more information call 601-576-6998 or email info@mdah.ms.gov.

UPCOMING PROGRAMS

March 6—Eric Etheridge, “Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Mississippi Freedom Riders.” Sales and signing to follow.

March 13—Randall Kennedy, “The Desegregation of Swimming Pools in Jackson: Palmer v. Thompson Reconsidered.”

March 20—Christian Pinnen, “Race, Slavery, Empire: Natchez in the Eighteenth Century.”

March 27—Karen Evers and Luke Lampton, “Images in Mississippi Medicine.” Sales and signing to follow.

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