Murder in Mississippi by Norman Rockwell

“Murder in Mississippi” by Norman Rockwell – A Detailed Analysis

Norman Rockwell’s Murder in Mississippi, also known as Southern Justice, is a powerful and evocative painting created in 1965. Commissioned by Look magazine to accompany an article on the civil rights movement, the artwork depicts the brutal murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi during the Freedom Summer of 1964. Rockwell’s stark, haunting imagery diverges from his typically wholesome depictions of American life, highlighting his versatility and deep social consciousness. Through this gripping portrayal, Rockwell confronts the harsh realities of racial violence and injustice, underscoring the profound impact of the civil rights struggle on American society.



Key Takeaways

  • Rockwell’s painting depicts the 1964 murders of three civil rights activists.
  • It marked a shift to more serious subjects in Rockwell’s work.
  • The painting remains significant for its impact and legacy.



Historical Context and the Event

ArtistNorman Rockwell (1894 – 1978)
Date Created1965
MediumOil on canvas
Period/MovementAmerican Realism
Dimensions (cm)134.5 x 106.5 
Where Is It Housed?Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, Massachusetts, United States
What It Is WorthEstimated at $20-30 million (value based on recent market trends and historical significance)

Norman Rockwell’s 1965 painting, Murder in Mississippi, is one of his most powerful works. It vividly depicts the tragic event of June 21, 1964, where three young civil rights activists, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, were murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Rockwell created this painting to accompany an article titled Southern Justice in Look magazine, capturing the brutal reality of racial violence in America.

Explore Murder in Mississippi by Norman Rockwell Norman Rockwell (nd); Bain News Service, publisher, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The painting stands out not only for its emotional depth but also for its realism. Rockwell’s choice to illustrate a dark and pivotal moment from the Civil Rights Movement marked a significant shift in his artistic career, moving away from his typical, more cheerful subjects. The raw depiction of the scene invites viewers to confront the harsh truths of this grim period in American history. Murder in Mississippi continues to be a significant piece of art with a lasting impact. Its dark and brooding nature forces audience members to reflect on the sacrifices made by those who fought for civil rights.

Rockwell’s illustration serves as a tribute to the courage of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, ensuring their story remains in the public consciousness.


Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi

In the 1960s, Mississippi was a central battleground for the Civil Rights Movement. Activists aimed to end racial segregation and gain equal voting rights. The state was known for its deeply rooted racism and violent resistance to change. The Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist group, terrorized African Americans and those who supported civil rights. They often worked with local authorities to maintain the racist status quo. Philadelphia, a small city in Mississippi, epitomized these struggles. Civil rights organizations, like the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), sent volunteers to Mississippi. These volunteers, many of whom were young and idealistic, faced harassment, arrests, and violence from both racists and law enforcement.

Murder in Mississippi by Norman Rockwell Context Plaque about murders in Mississippi (2009); Billy Hathorn at en.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons


The Tragic Incident

On June 21, 1964, three civil rights workers—James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner—were investigating the burning of a black church in Neshoba County, near Philadelphia, Mississippi. They were arrested by Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price for a supposed traffic violation and released later that night. Immediately after their release, the men were ambushed by members of the Ku Klux Klan, including Deputy Price himself. The Klan members brutally murdered Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner and buried their bodies in an earthen dam. The FBI launched an investigation, known as “Mississippi Burning.” The case drew national outrage and highlighted the extreme dangers faced by civil rights workers. The murders underscored the violent resistance to civil rights efforts in the South.

This tragic event is memorialized in Rockwell’s powerful painting.



Artistic Interpretation and Creation

Norman Rockwell’s Murder in Mississippi reflects his deep commitment to social justice. He created this piece to accompany an article in Look Magazine and used his skills to highlight the brutal realities of the civil rights movement.

Murder in Mississippi by Norman Rockwell Analysis Murder in Mississippi (1965) by Norman Rockwell; clare_and_ben, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0, via Flickr


Rockwell’s Artistic Process

Norman Rockwell began work on Murder in Mississippi in early 1965. His art was to illustrate an article titled Southern Justice in Look Magazine. Allen Hurlburt, the magazine’s art director, commissioned Rockwell for this project. Rockwell often started his work with detailed sketches. These helped him plan the composition. Next, he created oil sketches to refine his ideas. For “Murder in Mississippi, he made several preliminary sketches to capture the emotions and setting.

The final painting, completed in oil on canvas, shows the stark brutality of the event. He chose oil paints because they allowed for depth and detail, crucial for such a powerful piece.

Murder in Mississippi by Norman Rockwell Process Detail of Murder in Mississippi (1965) by Norman Rockwell; clare_and_ben, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0, via Flickr


Symbolism and Artistic Choices

In Murder in Mississippi, Rockwell used several symbolic elements. The painting depicts the tragic murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. Their lifeless bodies are central, highlighting the gravity of the injustice. Rockwell’s choice of somber colors adds to the painting’s impact. The dark palette emphasizes the grim reality and sets a serious tone. Drawing inspiration from artists like Francisco Goya, who often depicted war and suffering, Rockwell aimed to provoke thought. The stark landscape in the background is reminiscent of Goya’s works, evoking a sense of desolation and despair.

These artistic choices ensured that Murder in Mississippi was not just a painting, but a vivid narrative that communicated the horrors faced by civil rights activists.

Murder in Mississippi by Norman Rockwell Symbolism Stark Landscape in Murder in Mississippi (1965) by Norman Rockwell; clare_and_ben, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0, via Flickr



Impact and Legacy

Murder in Mississippi by Norman Rockwell had a significant impact on both the art world and the broader American society. The painting not only received critical acclaim but also influenced the Civil Rights Movement and American culture profoundly. When Murder in Mississippi first appeared in Look magazine in 1965, it elicited strong reactions from both the public and critics. The painting stood out for its stark realism and emotional depth. Many admired Rockwell’s bold shift from his earlier, more idyllic works like the Four Freedoms series. Critics praised Rockwell for addressing a pressing social issue with a new level of seriousness. The powerful depiction of the tragic murder of three young civil rights activists resonated with many, making it one of his most talked-about works.

Public response also showed a considerable engagement, with many readers writing letters to Look magazine expressing their thoughts and feelings about the piece.


Influence on American Culture and Civil Rights

Murder in Mississippi played a pivotal role in highlighting the Civil Rights Movement. The painting vividly captured the brutal realities faced by African Americans and their allies during the struggle for civil rights. It conveyed a powerful message about the risks and sacrifices involved in fighting for justice and equality. Rockwell’s work was displayed at the Norman Rockwell Museum, where it continued to inspire discussions on civil rights and social justice. The painting became a symbol of the fight against racial injustice and emphasized the importance of activism. By bringing such a critical issue into the public eye, Rockwell contributed to the broader cultural and social changes of the era.

Murder in Mississippi by Norman Rockwell History The Problem We All Live With (1964) by Norman Rockwell; Under the same moon, CC BY 4.0, via Flickr


Norman Rockwell’s Murder in Mississippi stands as a poignant testament to the artist’s commitment to social justice and his ability to capture the profound gravity of contemporary issues. Diverging from his renowned depictions of idyllic Americana, Rockwell’s stark portrayal of racial violence serves as a powerful commentary on the civil rights movement and the pervasive injustices of the time. The artwork’s emotional intensity and stark realism continue to resonate, reminding viewers of the enduring struggle for equality and the courage of those who fought for civil rights. Through Murder in Mississippi, Rockwell not only documented a pivotal moment in American history but also left an indelible mark on the narrative of social change.




Frequently Asked Questions


What Is the Significance of the Murder in Mississippi Painting by Norman Rockwell?

The painting highlights a tragic event where three civil rights activists, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, were murdered in 1964. Rockwell’s illustration was created in 1965 to accompany an article in Look magazine, shedding light on this important historical moment.


How Does Murder in Mississippi Reflect the Civil Rights Era Depicted in Norman Rockwell’s Artwork?

Rockwell’s painting captures the violence and sacrifice involved in the fight for civil rights. By focusing on these murders, he emphasizes the dangers faced by activists and the intense racial tensions of the period. This piece marks a shift in his work towards addressing more serious social issues.


How Did Norman Rockwell’s Approach to Social Issues Change Over the Course of His Career?

Early in his career, Rockwell was known for his light-hearted depictions of American life. However, in the 1960s, he began to tackle more profound social themes. Murder in Mississippi is a stark example of this shift, reflecting his growing commitment to social justice and civil rights.


What Techniques Did Norman Rockwell Use in Murder in Mississippi to Convey the Gravity of the Scene?

Rockwell employed a realistic style, using somber tones and dramatic lighting to highlight the seriousness of the event. His detailed depiction of the victims creates a powerful emotional impact. The composition draws the viewer’s focus to the three central figures, underlining the human cost of racial violence.


Cite this Article

Isabella, Meyer, ““Murder in Mississippi” by Norman Rockwell – A Detailed Analysis.” Art in Context. June 13, 2024. URL:

Meyer, I. (2024, 13 June). “Murder in Mississippi” by Norman Rockwell – A Detailed Analysis. Art in Context.

Meyer, Isabella. ““Murder in Mississippi” by Norman Rockwell – A Detailed Analysis.” Art in Context, June 13, 2024.

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