The 1988 movie “Mississippi Burning” directed by Alan Parker, is loosely based on true life events surrounding an FBI investigation that followed the 1964 murder of three civil rights activists by members of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in a small Mississippi town. The investigation led to the conviction of some prominent figures in the town including members of both the sheriff’s and mayor’s offices who were also members of the KKK.
The movie documents the methods used by the KKK to control the black community at that time. The well masked intimidation, violence and murders of black people in the community by the KKK must be seen as acts of terrorism and therefore, the unorthodox methods employed by the FBI to uncover the crime can be justified as necessary and appropriate given the circumstances.
The movie portrays a war waged by the KKK against non-Anglo Saxon people in the South during the early 1960’s. Blacks, Jews, Catholics, Turks, Mongols were all targets of the KKK. In fact, the list of unacceptable races or origins was extensive, but in the South at that time, the main target of KKK aggression was black people.
The KKK used violence, intimidation and coercion as means of controlling the black people and creating a culture of fear in the community. So effective were these tactics that even non-racist members of the community, such as the deputy’s wife in the movie (played by Frances McDormand), who were sympathetic to the plight of the black people, were afraid to speak up or voice their opinions for fear of backlash and reprisal.
While an all-encompassing definition of terrorism is difficult to pin down, the Jackson, Mississippi Division of the FBI defines terrorism as “the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.”
The United Nations goes further to state that terrorists are usually clandestine and that “the immediate human victims of violence are generally chosen randomly or selectively from a target population, and serve as message generators.” Based on these definitions, it is clear that the actions of the KKK were indeed terrorism. The violence perpetrated by the KKK against the black people in the community was unlawful, intimidating to the civilian population, anonymous (KKK members wore cloaks), and random means of sending a message to the larger population.
In the movie, two very dissimilar FBI agents head the investigation into the disappearance of the three activists. In the beginning, the investigation is lead by Agent Ward (played by Willem Dafoe), a young, very correct and by-the-book northerner. He does not understand the unwritten rules of the South and therefore, his methods fail to yield the results that he hopes for or has achieved elsewhere in his short but successful career.
In fact, his investigative techniques actually jeopardize the safety of the black people in the area because the KKK, watching every move the FBI make, go to great and sometimes violent lengths to make sure no one speaks to the investigators. Agent Anderson (played by Gene Hackman), on the other hand, is from Mississippi and understands more about the culture of the South. Only when he employs more extreme and rather questionable methods that mirror the methods of the Klan themselves, do the FBI close the case and convict the killers.
If the KKK is to be classified as a terrorist group, then it must follow that all members of the Klan assume some of the responsibility for the crimes they committed. In the case of this film, one could extend the guilt even further to include the entire community. It was clear that the actions of the Klan were cruel, deadly and well known amongst the townsfolk and yet almost everyone stood back and allowed them to continue their reign of terror. In light of the greater good therefore, the FBI were justified in taking the actions they took to stop the KKK and thus hopefully curtail further violence and intimidation in the community.
The atrocities committed by the KKK against non-white members of the community were more than crime. These actions were terrorism and all members of the group played a role in perpetuating the terror. We are all responsible for hatred.
Federal Bureau of Investigation, Jackson Division. (n.d.). Retrieved November 5, 2006 from
Definitions of Terrorism. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. (n.d.). Retrieved
November 5, 2006
Zollo, Frederick and Robert F. Colesberry. (Producers), & Parker, Alan. (Director). (1988). Mississippi Burning
[MotionPicture]. United States: MGM.