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The Mississippi Sovereignty Commission

By Lawayne Childrey | Published 10 Feb 2014 12:05am | comments

During the height of the Civil Rights movement the state of Mississippi created what was known as the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission.  MPB's Lawayne Childrey reports the group was a secret organization designed to spy on its own citizens as a way to maintain segregation.

In 1956 Mississippi Governor James P. Coleman urged lawmakers to pass one of the state’s most oppressive bills.

"I'm sure that you will not fail to enact an appropriate state sovereignty bill to maintain a successful fight for preserving the separation of the races in this state."

Overseen by the government and a handpicked board of 12 of the most powerful men in the state, the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission was granted broad powers to investigate individuals and civil rights groups.  During that time,  Hollis Watkins, who is now 72, served as an organizer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

"And see at first we didn't know about the Sovereignty Commission. We thought it was the Citizen Council and the Klan that had people to be laying in ambush, lingering around the places we had meetings and then as you would leave the meeting in your vehicle etcetera, then you ran the risk of being chased,"

"And they had so much power."

Itta Bena native Euvester Simpson remembers the day when spies from the Sovereignty Commission tracked the movement of a bus load of civil rights activist, including herself and famed leader, Fannie Lou Hamer. She says it eventually lead to them being jailed and beaten for their organizing efforts.

"And they had this huge strap and you'd  have to lie on a bunk and just let them beat you 'till the jailer said ok you can stop now. And so Mrs. Hamer was next to the last person that they got and they really, really beat her very, very bad. And I could hear the licks and I could hear her screaming because it was very, very painful."   

As civil rights organizations stepped up their mission to register African Americans to vote the Sovereignty Commission intensified its tactics, including eavesdropping on private meetings, tapping phones and soliciting African Americans as informants. It's  something Hollis Watkins says he remembers to this day.

"I remember former State Senator Henry Kirksey, you know who is deceased now. I remember once he showed me a letter where a black minister from the Delta, wrote a letter to the Sovereignty Commission asking for employment."

Watkins says he was also shown a letter of recommendation.

"In paraphrasing, the letter of recommendation said something to the essence of, I highly recommend Reverend so and so and so and so. He is the kind of nigger we need. He will be obedient and carry out to the very best of his ability whatever it is we tell him to do."   

Former Mississippi Governor William Winter says the Sovereignty Commission had a crippling effect on the states economy and reputation.

"It was so bad there for a while that people going outside the state in their automobiles, going to the east and the north would take their Mississippi license plates off. They didn't want to be identified as being from Mississippi. Manufacturers shipping goods made in Mississippi would take the signs off the boxes. We were a piranha in the country."

For many, the Sovereignty Commission was known as the hidden hand of the states power structure. In 1989 Clarion Ledger investigative reporter, Jerry Mitchell secretly obtained more than 24 hundred of the tens of thousands of sealed commission files. Mitchell says they showed how entrenched state government was in its pursuit to protect white supremacy. He also says the files give details of the plot by the Ku Klux Klan  to kill the three civil rights workers in Neshoba County.

"So there's communication between the commission and the Meridian Police Department. And of course half or more of the people in the Meridian Police Force were in the Klan. And so the license plate number was taken down by the White Citizens Council at one point. And Deputy, Sheriff Cecil Price had that license number when he pulled Mickey Schwerner and the others over. And of course the Klan had already voted by this point to kill Mickey Schwerner."

In addition, Mitchell says the files he obtained held key information that lead to the conviction of Byron De La Beckwith for the killing of Medgar Evers, the state’s first full time field secretary for the NAACP.

"And what the files showed was that the same time the State of Mississippi was prosecuting Byron De La Beckwith for the killing of Medgar Evers, this other arm of the State Sovereignty Commission was secretly assisting a defense trying to get him acquitted. And so my story ran October 1, 1989 and then lead to the arrest of Byron De La Beckwith a year later."

The Sovereignty Commission officially ended in 1977. But Dr. Leslie McLemore, Founding Director of the Hamer Institute at Jackson State University says parts of its principles continue to resurface.

"We are now being revisited by the voter ID law, something akin to the poll tax in the 50's and 60's and 70's. So the measures that are being enacted are designed to curb the political participation of African Americans. And that is something that tells us that the fight continues every day." 

After the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission disbanded, state lawmakers ordered the files sealed until 2027 to protect the powerful from exposure during their lifetimes. Lawayne Childrey, MPB News.

See a documentary on the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission by watching Spies of Mississippi tonight at 9 on MPB-TV.

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