Mars, Florence

Florence Mars (1923-2006) was a native Mississippian who spent much of her life in Neshoba County. She graduated from the University of Mississippi in 1944. Upon graduation Mars traveled and lived in various southern cities, such as Atlanta and New Orleans, before she returned to her birthplace of Philadelphia, MS. Not long following her return came the “Freedom Summer of 1964”, seeing hordes of civil rights activists bussed into areas of the Deep South most entrenched in the legacy of Jim Crow, in attempts to register disenfranchised African-American voters. Among the areas visited that most staunchly supported Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan was Mars’s own Neshoba County, leading to the horrific murders of three “Freedom Riders”: James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. These slayings sparked widespread outrage and led to a sweeping call for justice for the three young men’s murderers. As FBI agents poured into Neshoba County, they met the full resistance of a community steeped in the tradition of Jim Crow Era oppression, with the exception of a few, who were devout in their desire to see justice and equality brought to Philadelphia. Included in that select few was Mars.

Mars worked with the FBI to uncover the horrible truth of the Freedom Summer Murders; she gave them information on town leaders, including the sheriff and deputy sheriff, both of whom were found to be heavily involved in orchestrating the slayings. Mars was continually harassed, her business burned to the ground, jailed, and countless other tormenting acts. Her courage and dedication to justice never wavered, leading her to write the book Witness in Philadelphia, published in 1977. This book, along with the film Mississippi Burning, in which a character is based on Mars, kept the story of the murders alive and helped lead to the eventual convictions of those responsible, as well as the dissolution of one of the strongest factions of the KKK in the country. Mars passed away in 2006, but not before she sat in the courtroom on the forty-first anniversary of the Freedom Summer Murders and listened to the conviction of Edgar Ray Killen on June 21, 2005.

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Neshoba County: African-American Heritage Driving Tour of Philadelphia Mississippi.