Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission

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Millsaps College students protesting the death of Jackson State University student and civil rights worker Benjamin Brown, who was killed by police at a protest. Photo shot by the Commission with numbers used to identify individual students.[1]

The Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission (also called the Sov-Com) was a state agency which operated from 1956 to 1977. It was directed by governors of Mississippi.[2] The stated objective of the commission was to "[...] protect the sovereignty of the state of Mississippi, and her sister states" from "encroachment thereon by the Federal Government".[3] It coordinated activities to portray the state and racial segregation in a more positive light.

The agency was given unusual authority to investigate citizens of the state, issue subpoenas and even exercise police powers, although it was not attached to any law enforcement agency. During its existence, the commission profiled more than 87,000 persons associated with, or suspected to be associated with, the civil rights movement (which it opposed).[4] It investigated the work and credit histories and even personal relations of persons it investigated. It collaborated with local white officials of government, police, and business to pressure African Americans to give up activism, especially by economic pressures, such as causing them to be fired, evicted from rental housing, or to have their businesses boycotted.

Creation and structure

In 1956 newly elected governor James P. Coleman was determined to initiate action to resist federal efforts to force integration in schools, following the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) ruling by the United States Supreme Court. He gained passage by the state legislature of a bill to authorize the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, intended to maintain segregation. Nominally it was supposed to help protect the state's image to encourage business and tourism. But the Commission was given unusual authority to investigate private citizens, issue subpoenas and even exercise police powers, all in secret, in order to suppress civil rights activities.

The membership consisted of twelve appointed and legislatively elected members, and ex officio members, the governor, lieutenant governor, the Speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives, and the state attorney general. The governor sat as the chairman. Its initial budget was $250,000 a year.

The Sovereignty Commission's first investigator was Leonard Hicks, who began his position in 1956. In 1958 Zack Van Landingham became an investigator, followed by R.C. "Bob" Thomas, State Representative Hugh Boren, Andy Hopkins, and Tom Scarbrough in 1960. Other principal investigators for the Sovereignty Commission were Virgil Downing, Leland Cole, Fulton Tutor, Edgar C. Fortenberry, and James "Mack" Mohead.

Activities

As the state's public relations campaign failed to dampen rising civil rights activism, the commission put people to work as a de facto intelligence organization, trying to identify citizens who might be supporting civil rights initiatives, be allied with communists, or just tipped state surveillance if their associations, activities, and travels did not seem to conform to segregationist norms. Swept up on lists of people under suspicion by such broad criteria were tens of thousands of African-American and white professionals, teachers, and government workers in agricultural and other agencies, churches, and community organizations. The "commission penetrated most of the major civil rights organizations in Mississippi, even planting clerical workers in the offices of activist attorneys. It informed police about planned marches or boycotts and encouraged police harassment of African-Americans who cooperated with civil rights groups. Its agents obstructed voter registration by blacks and harassed African-Americans seeking to attend white schools."[5]

The commission's activities included attempting to preserve the state's segregation and Jim Crow laws, opposing school integration, and ensuring portrayal of the state "in a positive light." Among its first employees were a former FBI agent and a transfer from the state highway patrol. "The agency outwardly extolled racial harmony, but it secretly paid investigators and spies to gather both information and misinformation."[6] Staff of the commission worked closely with, and in some cases funded, the notorious White Citizens' Councils. From 1960 to 1964, the commission secretly funded the White Citizens Council, a private organization, with $190,000 of state funds.[7]:75

The commission also used its intelligence-gathering capabilities to assist in the defense of Byron De La Beckwith, the murderer of Medgar Evers in 1963, during his second trial in 1964. Sov-Com investigator Andy Hopkins provided De La Beckwith's attorneys with information on the potential jurors, which the attorneys used during the selection process.[7]:204–5

In 1964, the Sov-Com passed on information regarding civil rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman, to the conspirators in their murders during Freedom Summer.[8] Commission agent A.L. Hopkins met with Neshoba County law enforcement and suggested the disappearance of the three young men was a propaganda ploy.[9]

After the election of Paul B. Johnson Jr., the agency director, Erle Johnston, owner of The Scott County Times, expanded the public relations role. He tried to form closer ties with business while monitoring proclaimed subversive groups, such as the Congress of Racial Equality, founded by James L. Farmer, Jr.[10] Johnston left the commission in 1968. In 1980 he was elected as the mayor of Forest in Scott County, serving from 1981 into 1985.

Demise and legacy

The commission officially closed in 1977, four years after Governor Bill Waller vetoed further funding. There was debate about what to do with the extensive files about tens of thousands of state citizens, with some legislators recommending they be burned. After the agency was disbanded, state lawmakers ordered the files sealed until 2027 (50 years later) and they were transferred to the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. After a lawsuit by the ACLU to gain public access, in 1989 a federal judge ordered the records opened, with some exceptions for still-living people. Legal challenges delayed the records' availability to the public until March 1998.

The court made some provisions to protect the privacy of citizens who had been investigated. The persons documented were classified as "victims," those who had been investigated, or persons who had worked for the Commission or cooperated with its activities. As the commission agents had acted illegally to violate citizens' privacy and rights, they were determined to have sacrificed their own rights. Victims were given 90 days to determine if they wanted their records sealed, but few individuals chose that option.

Once unsealed, the records revealed more than 87,000 names of citizens about whom the state had collected information, or classified as "suspects." Today, the records of the commission are available online for search.[11] The records also revealed the state's complicity in the murders of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner at Philadelphia, Mississippi. Its investigator A. L. Hopkins gave information about the workers to the Commission, including the car license number of a new civil rights worker. It passed the information to the Sheriff of Neshoba County, who was implicated in the murders.[12]

A Louisiana Sovereignty Commission, with a similar mission, operated in that state during the 1960s. For a time it was under the direction of attorney Frank Voelker, Jr., of Lake Providence in East Carroll Parish, which borders Mississippi. Voelker resigned the post to run for governor of Louisiana in 1963 but soon withdrew from the race. State Senator Spencer Myrick of Oak Grove in West Carroll Parish was an investigator for the commission, since disbanded.

See also

References

  1. ^ Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission (1967-05-11). "Millsaps students protest death of JSU student Ben Brown". Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Archived from the original on August 6, 2011.
  2. ^ Hendrickson, Paul (2003). Sons of Mississippi. New York City: Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 0-375-40461-9.
  3. ^ Rowe-Sims, Sarah (September 2002). "The Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission: An Agency History". Mississippi Historical Society.
  4. ^ Mississippi Commission's Files a Treasure Trove of Innuendo." Associated Press 18 March 1998. Accessed 9 May 2008. Archived July 29, 2015, at the Wayback Machine.
  5. ^ "Silent Partner: How the South’s Fight To Uphold Segregation Was Funded Up North", The Wall Street Journal, 11 June 1999, accessed 6/9/2009
  6. ^ "Mississippi Commission's Files a Treasure Trove of Innuendo", Associated Press (AP), 18 Mar 1998, accessed 9 May 2008 Archived May 29, 2004, at the Wayback Machine.
  7. ^ a b Vollers, Maryanne (April 1995). Ghosts of Mississippi: The Murder of Medgar Evers, the Trials of Byron de la Beckwith, and the Haunting of the New South. Little, Brown. ISBN 978-0-316-91485-7. Retrieved 9 September 2011.
  8. ^ Irons, Jenny. (2010). Reconstituting Whiteness: the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press. xiv. ISBN 978-0-8265-1685-5
  9. ^ Irons. p. 169.
  10. ^ Irons. p. 135
  11. ^ Series 2515: Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission Records, 1994-2006 Archived 2011-01-15 at the Wayback Machine., Mississippi Department of Archives and History, accessed 2 December 2011.
  12. ^ "Mississippi Commission's Files a Treasure Trove of Innuendo." Associated Press, 18 March 1998. Accessed 9 May 2008. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on May 29, 2004. Retrieved 2008-05-09.

Further reading

External links

  • Records of the Sovereignty Commission
  • The Mississippi Sovereignty Commission (Mississippi Public Broadcasting)
  • Mississippi State Secrets and Dr. J. Horace Germany (Video)
  • "Spies of Mississippi", film presented on Independent Lens
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