We Pass on the Dance

06/05/2015 12:15 pm ET | Updated Jun 04, 2016

Perhaps you have seen it; for once seen, it is hard to forget. Norman Rockwell is best known as the painter of a charming Americana, delightful scenes of families and neighbors and neighborly-ness. But in the spring of 1965, the editors of Look magazine commissioned a different kind of painting.

It had been a year since civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman had been murdered by white terrorists in the backwoods of Mississippi. At some point in June 1964, the three men had been savagely beaten by a mob of racists, then shot at close range - their bodies buried beneath an earthen dam. It took law enforcement more than a month to find their badly decomposed bodies. It took the justice system decades to bring their killers to justice.

So in June 1965, to accompany an article by civil rights lawyer Charles Morgan Jr., the Look editors asked Rockwell to recreate the scene. Rockwell immersed himself in the subject, pinning pictures of the slain about his easel, reading obsessively on the investigation.

At last, he presented what he called "Southern Justice," though the painting soon became called "Murder in Mississippi," to Look.

It is stunning. Against a stark and featureless background, Schwerner stands defiant, holding a dying Chaney. At his feet, the body of Andrew Goodman. Schwerner faces the men, but all the viewer can see is their black shadows, and hints of the weapons the killers will use to end Schwerner's life.

Interestingly, the editors chose not to publish the finished painting, but instead Rockwell's preparatory oil sketch, a rough, and jagged version, starker and more haunting than the final work of art. Schwerner's face doesn't have the heroic stature of the finished version. Instead, with just a few slashing strokes, Rockwell created Everyman (and woman), calmly awaiting the inevitable, his courage making their cowardice all the more shocking.

In a time when news magazines like Life and Look were nearly as influential as television, the painting created a national dialogue.

A month later, in July 1965, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, a sweeping, game-changing piece of legislation born in the blood spilled in Mississippi and Selma, and one that has been constantly under attack by reactionary forces ever since.

In time, Rockwell's emotional masterpiece dropped from the public eye.

Fifty years later, I was reminded of "Murder in Mississippi" not by seeing the painting itself, but by a poem, "Four Sisters and the Dance."

I read the poem in Her Texas: Story, Image, Poem & Song, an extraordinary collection of fiction and nonfiction by Sandra Cisneros, Rosemary Catacalos, Diane Fanning, Ruthie Foster, Tish Hinojosa, Naomi Shihab Nye, Loretta Diane Walker, and many more Texas women writers and artists, released earlier this year by Wings Press.

"Four Sisters and the Dance" is by Hermine Pinson, a celebrated poet who teaches creative writing at the College of William and Mary, and it tells of "four coppery-brown pigtailed girls" who, Pinson writes, "outran our own shadows." The lines that struck me were these:

We hold hands to bridge the distance
between faith and fallibility.
We pass on the dance.
We pass on the dance.

Four African-American women. Three men, two white, one black. Separated by fifty years. In the painting, Michael Schwerner holds James Chaney. In the poem, Hermine Pinson's sisters hold each other's hands and face the future. Their future - God willing - will be long and happy and joyous. Michael Schwerner's future will be short.

This murder was one of the reasons that Nina Simone wrote "Mississippi Goddam." The blood of the three men was one of the reasons that LBJ was able to garner support for both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The sacrifice of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman bridged the distance "between faith and fallibility." Their faith in the equality of all people and their faith that a corrupt and demonic system could be changed ultimately led them to that lonely and brutal end at the hands of evil men.

That is the power of Rockwell's "Murder in Mississippi." Look at it again. Schwerner stares at his killers with the gaze of someone who is seeing beyond the Eternal Now into the future. Hate will win on this night. But in the blood of innocent men and women is found the irresistible, all-conquering power of Love.

Fifty years later, we have Rockwell's painting to remind us of that night.

Fifty years later, we have historic markers and monuments dedicated to the sacrifice of three young men.

Fifty years later, the law has changed. Hearts - some, not all - have changed.

And those of us who believe, pass on the dance.

"Four Sisters and the Dance" by Hermine Pinson used by permission of Wings Press.

Robert Darden is the author of Nothing But Love in God's Water: Black Sacred Music from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement, Volume I (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2014).