Bearing Witness to Jim Crow in Mississippi With Uncompromising Candor

Lillian Smith did something 70 years ago that was unusual for a white writer: She delved into the world of southern gentility to reveal the bigotry, both casual and virulent, that lay beneath. In her controversial book, “Killers of the Dream,” she unflinchingly lay bare racist sensibilities, taboos and behavior — of her neighbors, family and herself.

She used her status as a privileged insider to expose and detail the paradoxes and complexity of racism. “The mother who taught me what I know of tenderness and love and compassion taught me also the bleak rituals of keeping Negroes in their ‘place,’” Ms. Smith wrote.

Inspired by “Killers of the Dream,” Florence Mars, a white woman from Mississippi’s landed gentry, did with her camera what Ms. Smith accomplished with her pen: She made visible, with uncompromising candor, the racial nuances, injustices and contradictions of the South. Her photographs are the subject of a new book by James T. Campbell and Elaine Owens, “Mississippi Witness: The Photographs of Florence Mars” (University Press of Mississippi), which includes more than 100 images, most unpublished until now.


A local schoolteacher identified by Florence Mars as Gus Houston, holding copies of The Chicago Defender, Philadelphia, Miss., November 1954.

Florence Mars/Courtesy of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History