Hey everybody, remember that time taxpayer dollars worked to keep segregation going through murder and espionage?
In 1954, the Supreme Court issued the famous Brown v. Board of Education ruling which led to the forcible integration of schools throughout the US. In 1956, James P. Coleman, the governor of Mississippi championed the passage of a bill through the state legislature establishing the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, an organization which was explicitly supposed to maintain segregation throughout the state. It was stated that this would be done through promotional materials that were pro-segregation so that businesses and tourism wouldn’t be negatively affected, but, within the legislation, the committee was given almost unbridled authority to investigate private citizens and even exercise police powers. Mississippi suddenly had a number of state spies, all working to subvert the civil rights movement and ensure the legacy of white supremacy.
I didn’t know of the existence of this group for most of my life, and I consider that an astonishingly bad gap in my education, particularly since the files that the commission developed were unsealed in 1998 (as opposed to the originally mandated year of 2027). The commission itself wasn’t dissolved until 1977, more than a decade after the signing of the Voting Rights Act, usually considered the turning point for the civil rights movement. There were over 87,000 names of people that the Commission had investigated, to give you an idea of how extensive the spy-ring was.
I guess despite growing up in the South I never really understood how vehemently many people wanted to maintain segregation, but the film points out the obvious: The more things started to move towards equality, the more the oppressors feared reprisal. When the Federal Government told the states to start integrating, that meant that the segregationists now had to actually consider what it meant that the percentage of black people in Mississippi was nearly equal to the white population. Currently, aside from the District of Columbia, Mississippi has the highest per capita population of black Americans of any state, at around 38%, but in 1950, non-whites (because that’s the only way they kept demographic data back then) made up over 45% of the population. This fear of black people actually having majority power was what Governor Coleman used to convince the legislature to create the commission.
I cannot, in this short review, convey the sheer level of atrocities that are levied at this group. They used spies, including African-Americans, most of whom were wealthy and wanted to keep the poorer black people down, to infiltrate any civil rights gathering. They published the names of any people who were seen supporting the Voting Rights Act. They framed innocent people and had them sent to prison over such trivial things as “wanting to go to college while black.” They made promotional videos of the fact that they had tanks which were directly stated to be ready for anyone who tried to picket the state government or make complaints of due process violations to Federal authorities. Also, they were involved in the infamous events of Mississippi Burning. The fact that they did all of this openly and with impunity is horrifying and the fact that so many of the people involved stayed influential with the state is even more so.
During the course of looking into this film, I found out that Florida, my home state, had a similar group called the Florida Legislative Investigation Committee, aka the Johns Committee. Similar to Mississippi, the Florida Legislature responded to Brown v. Board of Education by declaring the decision “null and void,” and then enact a committee to try and destroy the NAACP. When they failed to do that due to their own incompetence, they then turned their attention on the LGBT+ community, mostly getting teachers fired for being suspected of homosexuality. Ultimately, they weren’t in the same ballpark as the Mississippi committee in terms of either tactics or effectiveness, but the fact that they existed and nobody seems to mention that is still horrible.
Overall, I really recommend this film to everyone. It’s short and it exposes a deeply disturbing part of American history that was literally state sponsored. Seriously, the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission was like 1% of the state’s budget by the 1960s and nobody seemed to bat an eye. I guess racism trumps fiscal responsibility.
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