Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission

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Millsaps students protesting death of JSU student and civil rights worker Benjamin Brown. Photo shot by the Commission with numbers identifying 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 the governor 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.

During its existence, the commission profiled more than 87,000 names of people associated with the civil rights movement (which it opposed), and was complicit in the murders of three civil rights workers in Neshoba County.[4]

Creation and structure[edit]

The Commission was created by the Mississippi Legislature in 1956 in reaction to the 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education, in which the United States Supreme Court held unanimously that racially segregated public schools were unconstitutional. The "sovereignty" the state was trying to protect was against federal enforcement of civil rights laws, such as the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and U.S. Supreme Court rulings.[clarification needed] 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[edit]

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, it 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, during his second trial. 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

The Sov-Com was also involved in the arrests and murders of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman, three volunteers for the Freedom Summer project of 1964.[8] Commission agent, A.L. Hopkins, met with Neshoba County law enforcement and suggested the disappearance 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 and attempted 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 and was from 1981 to 1985 the mayor of Forest in Scott County, Mississippi.

Demise and legacy[edit]

The commission officially closed in 1977, four years after Governor Bill Waller vetoed further funding. After the agency was disbanded, state lawmakers ordered the files sealed until 2027 (50 years later). After a lawsuit, 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. Once unsealed, records revealed more than 87,000 names of people about whom the state had collected information, or included 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 three civil rights workers at Philadelphia, Mississippi; its investigator A. L. Hopkins passed on information about the workers, including the car license number of a new civil rights worker, to the Commission, which passed the information to the Sheriff of Neshoba County, who was implicated in the murders.[12]

A Louisiana Sovereignty Commission, with a similar mission, existed during the 1960s. For a time it was under the direction of the 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.

Notes[edit]

  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, June 11, 1999, accessed 6/9/2009
  6. ^ "Mississippi Commission's Files a Treasure Trove of Innuendo", 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, 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 May 29, 2004, at the Wayback Machine.

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