This year marks the 50th anniversary of the passage of one of the most important pieces of civil rights legislation in American history, the 1965 Voting Rights Act. An upcoming, new Smithsonian Channel Black History Month two-part special, “Mississippi Inferno,” will reveal the essential role played by black landowners and black independent farmers as a real driving force behind the passage of this legislation.
Narrated by actor, director and political activist Danny Glover, the two-part special premieres Monday, February 16 with “Mississippi Inferno: Seeds of Revolt” at 8pm ET/PT, followed by “Mississippi Inferno: Deeds of Defiance” at 9pm ET/PT.
Last November, President Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to slain civil rights activists James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, who were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan during 1964’s historic voter registration drive. “Mississippi Inferno” reveals that a second “triple murder” was being planned by the KKK – only the next three targets were not “outside agitators,” but three black landowners who allowed civil rights workers to stay in their homes. This group of black landowners and independent farmers were willing to risk their land, their homes, and their lives by using their land as collateral to obtain property bonds to get hundreds of civil rights workers out of jail.
“Mississippi Inferno,” features compelling first person accounts of the courage and resourcefulness of the families who jeopardized their land and their lives for social justice. Their story has been largely ignored and yet they were key to the success of the civil rights movement. They not only provided safe havens and food, but even armed protection to the outside volunteers who were otherwise committed to non-violence.
Also told is the story of an independent farmer and teacher, Robert Clarke J.R., who came to own the land on which his great-grandparents were enslaved and became the first black candidate elected to a state-wide office in Mississippi since Reconstruction.
The special also reveals how a New Deal era experiment in land reform enabled over 100 families of sharecroppers to gain control of 10,000 acres of some of the most fertile land in the state, and become independent farmers who, a generation later, became leaders of the civil rights movement in Mississippi.
“Mississippi Inferno” is produced by Thunk It Media in association with Mentorn Media for Smithsonian Channel. David Shulman is the producer and director. Joy Galane and David Royle serve as executive producers for Smithsonian Channel.