Florence L. Mars, 83, Who Was Spurned for Rights Work, Dies
By NADINE BROZAN
Published: April 29, 2006
Florence Latimer Mars, who defied the society into which she was born to write a searing book about the
effects of the 1964 killings of the civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Earl
Chaney on her hometown, Philadelphia, Miss., died on Sunday at her home there. She was 83.
Associated Press, 1989
Florence Latimer Mars
The cause was congestive heart failure, said Dawn Lea Chalmers, a second cousin. She had been suffering from
Bell's palsy and diabetes. An only child who never married, Miss Mars had no immediate survivors.
The author of "Witness in Philadelphia," published in 1977 by the Louisiana State University Press, she
repeatedly spoke out against the Ku Klux Klan and other forces oppressing the black population of east central
Mississippi. A fourth-generation resident of the area and a member of its landed gentry, she was also a
significant source of information for the F.B.I. agents investigating the killings, and she testified before a
federal grand jury.
Miss Mars paid dearly for her efforts. The Klan organized a boycott against the stockyard where she sold cattle,
forcing it to close, and she was compelled to resign from posts at the First United Methodist Church.
"Less than 24 hours after I testified before a grand jury investigating those murders (and the church burning
that preceded them), the Klan initiated a campaign to 'ruin' me, a WASP lady with eight great-grandparents
buried in Neshoba County," she wrote in her book, completed with the assistance of Lynn Eden, now the
associate director for research at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University.
Stanley Dearman, who was editor of The Neshoba Democrat from 1966 to 2000, said: "There was a lot of
animosity toward her for being so outspoken. She had threats against her life, anonymous midnight phone
calls, and people driving by her house throwing bricks and shouting obscenities. But she had a lot of moral
courage and conviction and was not shakable."
In his foreword to her book, Turner Catledge, a former executive editor of The New York Times, who grew up
in Philadelphia, wrote of her: "What a witness! She witnessed with her eyes, her ears and her heart. She saw,
she heard, she felt and through her own involvement she bore witness to qualities of courage and goodwill that
all but evaporated in the climate of passion that flowed from an unreasoning fear of change."
Florence Mars, a diminutive woman barely five feet tall, seemed an unlikely candidate for the defiant role she
assumed. She was born on Jan. 1, 1923, to Adam Longino Mars, a lawyer, and Emily Geneva Johnson Mars,
known as Neva.
She graduated from Philadelphia High School and attended Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss. She graduated
from the University of Mississippi in 1944, and then worked as a reservations agent for Delta Air Lines in
Atlanta. In the 1950's, she lived in New Orleans, where she photographed jazz musicians. In 1962, she returned
to Philadelphia, raising cattle and owning and running the Neshoba County Stockyards.
She also stepped into the forefront of the battle for civil rights in her town. She allied herself with the Council
of Federated Organizations, a consortium of groups like S.N.C.C., CORE and the N.A.A.C.P.
One of her more frightening encounters with the Klan occurred late one night in July 1965 when she was
driving home from a party at the Neshoba County fair and was picked up by the sheriff, Lawrence A. Rainey, on
trumped-up charges of drunken driving. He dragged her out of her car and jailed her. A member of the Klan,
Mr. Rainey was later tried on charges of violating the civil rights of the three young civil rights workers killed
outside Philadelphia, and was acquitted.
In June 2005, Miss Mars was in the courtroom in Philadelphia when Edgar Ray Killen, by then 80,
mastermind of the ambush of the civil rights workers, was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to 60
years in prison. (The verdict is being appealed.)
Miss Mars was vindicated not only by her friends but also by her foes. At her funeral service on Thursday, Mr.
Dearman said, "People said, 'Florence was right.' People who don't remember how they acted."