In 1956, the racist governor of Mississippi started a secretive commission to fight integration

Abetting murder was among the misdeeds

The Mississippi Sovereignty Commission is infamous for its role in the 1964 deaths of three civil rights workers (L-R) Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman. (AP/FBI)

 

By Nina Renata Aron | Timeline

“I have not the slightest fear,” said Mississippi governor James Coleman during his 1956 swearing in, “that four years hence when my successor stands here on this same spot to assume his official oath, the separation of the races in Mississippi will be left intact and will still be in full force and effect in exactly the same manner and form as we know it today.”

It was quite a bold statement to make two years after the Supreme Court passed Brown v. Board of Education, declaring the segregation of public schools unconstitutional and ushering in an era of greater equality. But many in the South greeted that decision with deep suspicion and outrage. Mississippi was one state that refused to head into the era of integration without a bitter fight.

Under Coleman’s leadership, the state legislature created the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, ostensibly to “protect the sovereignty of the state of Mississippi and her sister states’’ from interference by the federal government. In actuality, the Commission was a 12-member watchdog agency designed to monitor any threat to the southern state’s racist way of life. The status-quo-obsessed group functioned like a mini-FBI, mobilizing a vast network of informants to collect data and, over it’s 20-year run, spying on over 87,000 individuals it thought might be challenging Jim Crow segregation. A kind of “cornpone KGB,” as Hendrik Hertzberg called it in a 2010 New Yorker piece.

In her book Reconstituting Whiteness: The Mississippi State Sovereignty Committee, Jenny Irons argues that the agency functioned not just as an intelligence-gathering arm of the government, but also as a public relations tool. Maintaining what Coleman had called the “Mississippi way of life” meant surveilling and controlling the forces for civil rights within its borders, but also liaising with citizens’ councils, business leaders, and other state governments, and adopting a brazen attitude to justify the way things were done. Irons writes that after the NAACP complained that members were being unfairly deterred from voting (often by threats to their jobs or their lives), Ney Gore, the first director of the Sovereignty Committee, wrote to an Illinois senator asking that the U.S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee come visit Mississippi. He didn’t believe then-head of the NAACP Roy Wilkins “and his ilk” were accurately representing conditions in the state. “We have nothing to hide in Mississippi,” he said.

According to Irons, the MSSC’s investigators were essentially “race police,” who tracked the minutest behaviors of those they thought were sympathetic to the cause of civil rights. A 1998 AP story about the Commission’s files saysthe information they contain can “border on the ridiculous.” In addition to lists of license plate numbers collected from parked cars outside NAACP meetings, the MSSC had recorded “where someone bought chicken feed, grades earned in World Geography and U.S. History, even the registration number on a birth certificate.” This was also the height of the Cold War, and investigators were asked to create files for communist sympathizers as well as civil rights activists. Lists of those surveilled contain numerous celebrities, too, including Elvis Presley, B.B. King, the Rolling Stones, Sammy Davis, Jr., and James Brown.

The Sovereignty Commission, which was given a budget of $250,000, used its funding to pay a cadre of investigators and for larger scale activities like participating in the fight against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It threw money behind the defense of Byron De La Beckwith, the killer of civil rights leader Medgar Evers. Some MSSC staff members also funded White Citizens’ Councils (with $190,000), the notorious white supremacist cells organized to fight integration throughout the South. The Commission even funneled small amounts of money to black supporters of segregation. According to historian Robby Luckett, “They paid money to black Mississippians to infiltrate the meetings of civil rights activists.”

In 1964, Paul B. Johnson, an attorney, former Marine, and staunch segregationist, became governor of the state (on his fourth run for the office). Johnson spent his tenure carefully toeing the line between his constituents and federal legislation banning discrimination. He worked with Erle Johnston, a politically active newspaper owner who was then head of the MSSC, to ramp up the public relations functions of the Commission. While still actively spying and infiltrating civil rights organizations, Johnson and Johnston also worked to soften their message, and attempted to boost Mississippi’s image around the U.S. by bringing Northern reporters to Mississippi and “sending polished, articulate ambassadors for Mississippi to northern states to argue for the benign qualities of segregation,” according toAmerican Public Media.

The Commission is best known for its role in the 1964 deaths of three civil rights workers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. It happened during Freedom Summer, also known as the Mississippi Summer Project, a volunteer-driven civil rights initiative to register black voters. The three young men (two of whom were white and one black) were traveling between the small Mississippi towns of Meridian and Philadelphia, collecting information about a racist attack on a church, when they were pulled over for speeding. They were briefly jailed for no apparent reason, then released, also mysteriously. When they left town, they were trailed by a mob that included law enforcement officials, then abducted, and murdered execution-style. (The story was dramatized in the Academy Award-nominated 1988 film Mississippi Burning). During the investigation into the men’s deaths, it was revealed that the Ku Klux Klan and two Mississippi police departments were involved in a conspiracy to kill them. Years later, it came out that the MSSC had passed the license plate information of James Chaney (the one black civil rights worker) to the Meridian police, a damning revelation, if not one that actually incriminated the agency in the dark chain of events. Furthermore, Governor Johnson was of little help during the investigation of the killings, even brushing off rumors that the three had been murdered by saying, “Maybe they went to Cuba,” a reference to the perceived communist leanings of the activists.

A civil rights activist in Jackson, Mississippi, demonstrates tactics for self defense when attacked by segregationists on June 2, 1963. (AP/Horace Court)

Photograph of arrested demonstrators from the Sovereignty Commission archive. (MDAH)

The MSSC stopped working in 1973, but it didn’t officially close until 1977, when Governor William Waller denied the agency further funding. And though it was was careful to keep its files under wraps, the Commission had long been under pressure from entities like the American Civil Liberties Union to release information about the people whose lives it had disrupted. The ACLU officially filed a lawsuit against the MSSC in 1977, and fought a 21-year battle to have the agency’s files unsealed. That finally happened in 1998, and journalists, historians, and family members seized upon the information, which is now housed online by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

The Mississippi Sovereignty Commission represents the confluence of numerous white fears — of change, civil rights, non-white upward mobility, and communism, to name a few — and it stands as a stark example of a kind of state-sanctioned vigilantism, a particular American paradox. Its tactics were many and varied, but as W. Ralph Eubanks — the child of targets of the MSSC — writes in his 2013 memoir Ever Is A Long Time: A Journey Into Mississippi’s Dark Past, the Commission existed primarily to “instill fear in Mississippeans like my parents: well-educated, progressive-thinking African-Americans,” more commonly thought of among the white Southern establishment as “uppity” for believing in their right to a decent life.

Speaking of the MSSC’s tactics, Horace Harned, an early commission member, told a reporter, “Whether it was legal or not…never bothered me….We kept the radicals and communist-led marchers from taking over Mississippi. It was a necessary job.”

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