Two nights ago Charles and I watched a quite chilling documentary I’d recorded from PBS, an Independent Lens presentation called Spies of Mississippi dealing with the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission. Never heard of them? You’re not alone; the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission was created in 1956, in a law passed by the Mississippi state legislature and signed into law by the state’s governor with virtually no opposition. Originally it was just supposed to be a P.R. department producing glossy books, brochures and films about how wonderful the Mississippi system of legally enforced racial segregation was, how it ensured that crime among Mississippi’s Black people was far lower than it was in the Northern Black ghettoes, and how determined the state fathers of Mississippi were to keep it in spite of that nasty little piece of liberal judicial activism from 1954 called Brown v. Board of Education. Other Southern states had private groups, usually organized under the name White Citizens’ Council, aimed at doing the same thing, and the Citizens’ Councils were so closely tied in with the resurgent Ku Klux Klan that they might be thought of as the “political arm” of the Klan the way for years the Sinn Fein political party in Northern Ireland was the political arm of the Irish Republican Army. Mississippi went the rest of the South once better and formed an actual agency of state government, giving it a charter that was virtually unlimited in terms of its ability not only to monitor phone calls but keep people under surveillance and cultivate a network of informants, both Black and white — and the willingness of members of the Black community to become Sovereignty Commission informants and spy on the civil rights movement was itself one of the key factors that led director Dawn Porter to want to make this film.
As anyone who has seen the film The Birth of a Nation (which of course presented this historical drama approvingly!) will recall, from the South’s point of view the Northern carpetbaggers and Southern scalawags had put into power an irresponsible, lust-driven Black minority into political power in the South, and the only way to put the Blacks back “in their place” was to take away both the Blacks’ votes and their guns. To do this, former Confederate soldiers had organized the Ku Klux Klan, and while it had pretty much faded away once it had accomplished its original purpose (only to be revived after 1915, when Griffith’s film sparked a new Klan that became even more powerful than the first one had been, reaching far beyond the South and for a time becoming the political power in a state as far north as Indiana), the white Democrats who ran the South after the end of Reconstruction kept the Black community down with systematic terror (including lynchings) and a series of bizarre laws, ranging from poll taxes to so-called “literacy tests” (one fabled question on which was, “How many bubbles are there in a bar of soap?”), to make sure that Blacks didn’t vote and therefore didn’t threaten the hegemony of the white Southern aristocrats, repeatedly elected to office mostly from the votes of poor and working-class whites because the aristocrats had convinced them that the real threat to their welfare was a Black takeover. The post-Birth of a Nation Klan collapsed in the late 1920’s, partly due to internal corruption (many of the Klan organizations were basically cons aimed at ripping off working-class whites by charging them inflated prices for “official” Klan uniforms, small arms, etc.) and partly because the Depression changed the Zeitgeist enough that for a brief time, at least, the concern of the Democratic party even in parts of the South became getting the economy moving and getting people back to work, and though racial tensions remained and were still useful as divide-and-conquer strategies, they were less important than they’d been during the 1920’s. Then came the Second World War, the rise of a pro-civil rights faction in the Northern Democratic Party, the fruits of the NAACP’s long legal strategy aimed at challenging the constitutionality of racial segregation in the courts, and, in the first decade after Brown, the sudden emergence of a mass direct-action civil-rights movement aimed at directly going after segregation and making the promise of Brown a reality on the ground.
The response of the Southern aristocracy and the working-class whites they enlisted as junior partners in the fight for white supremacy was a scorched-earth policy that fought on all fronts. The very name “Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission” indicates the extent to which the civil-rights struggle had become yet another front of the South’s continuing struggle to maintain its racist “peculiar institutions” (slavery as Peculiar Institution 1.0 and segregation as 2.0) under the banner of “States’ Rights,” which had led the South and its leaders in the 1830’s to claim the rights of interposition and nullification (when Martin Luther King, Jr. used these terms in the March on Washington speech a lot of people in the audience, especially northern whites, probably shook their heads and wondered what he was talking about; it meant the idea that, since the states had pre-existed the federal government, they had the right to “interpose” their authority against the feds telling them to do anything they didn’t want to do and “nullify” federal laws and declare them of no effect in their states), in the 1860’s to try to secede and launch the Civil War, in the late 19th century to segregate Black people and take their voting rights away at gunpoint, and in the 1950’s to close the public schools altogether rather than integrate them — either that or keep the Black schools open but shuttle the white students to so-called “private academies” that were really state-funded. The Southern Brahmins disclaimed any responsibilities for the rise of the White Citizens’ Councils and the Ku Klux Klans, but they took advantage of them as foot soldiers in the racist counterrevolution, and in Mississippi the counterrevolution took the form of outright espionage in which civil rights organizations were infiltrated, spies took down the license numbers of cars at public (or not-so-public) civil-rights meetings, and then the agents of the Sovereignty Commission leaked this information to local Mississippi law enforcement, knowing full well that many members of local Mississippi law enforcement were members of the Citizens’ Councils and the Klan. They would use the license-plate information to obtain the names and addresses of anyone active in civil rights and have their names and addresses published in local newspapers — thereby giving both Klansmen and free-lance vigilantes the information they needed to go after them and either attack them legally by framing them for “crimes” (like the Black civil-rights leader whose career was abruptly ended when he was framed for stealing 20 pounds of chicken feed for his mother’s farm) or simply take them out illegally.
Director Dawn Porter believes — and presents powerful evidence — that the 1964 murders of civil-rights workers Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman (the South’s worst nightmare: an “uppity” Black man and two white Jews from New York!) were essentially orchestrated by the Sovereignty Commission, who “outed” them to law enforcement in Meridian, Mississippi (by weird coincidence also the birthplace of Jimmie Rodgers, the country-music legend who became, among his other distinctions, the first white musician to record undiluted Black blues), who rather than bothering to frame them or drive them out of town, simply killed them and buried their car. Porter is a bit naïve about the role of the FBI in all this — she buys into the myth created by the film Mississippi Burning that the FBI aggressively investigated crimes against civil-rights activists, when the opposite was the truth: J. Edgar Hoover was convinced that the civil-rights movement was part of the overall Communist conspiracy and, if anything, his sympathies were with the Southerners — but her film is overall a fascinating study of a mind-set in which racism was open, above-board and even proud of itself (one Sovereignty Commission member, Hollis Watkins, is interviewed for the film and he’s still an unrepentant racist, proud of the Commission’s work and his association with it), as witness the clips from two of the Commission’s films Porter includes. One is a production showing happy, carefree Black people living their own lives, minding their own business and expressing the benefits segregation has conferred on their race, with an unctuous narrator explaining it all to us in the familiar tones of anyone who went to school in the 1950’s or 1960’s and saw and heard the preposterous “audio-visual” educational movies we were made to sit through then. The other is an even more bizarre movie, shot and narrated in the same bland “audio-visual” style that somehow makes it even more chilling, showing the preparations Mississippi has made to deal with any demonstrators with the temerity to do a campaign for racial equality there, complete with huge outdoor pens in which to hold arrestees, flatbed trucks wrapped in barbed wire to transport them, tank-like vehicles for crowd control and other riot gear that represented high-tech law enforcement in the 1960’s. (One would hope that the DVD release of Spies of Mississippi will include these two films “complete” as bonus items.)
One grim aspect of Spies of Mississippi was how many African-Americans were recruited to spy on their own for the Commission, many of them Black ministers (also the leading African-American newspaper publisher of the state) who believed that “outside agitators” were “rocking the boat” and threatening their positions of responsibility in the Black community with all this dangerous talk about integration and equality. Of course, some of the Black collabòs were motivated by less ostensibly noble reasons, including money and fear. But the real aspect of Spies of Mississippi that’s most frightening today is how little the Right’s strategies have changed. For one thing, they’re still obsessed with making sure African-Americans and other people of color can’t vote, and with poll taxes and some of the other transparent tactics of the Sovereignty Commission’s day barred they are using photo ID requirements, restrictions on the times and places people are allowed to vote, and broad-based laws disqualifying people for being “criminals” to minimize the turnout of the “wrong” kinds of voters. They’re also pulling the same stunt of setting up state-funded “private academies” for well-heeled white people to avoid the indignity of having their kids going to school with “Those People,” though instead of “private academies” today they’re called “charter schools,” and instead of the state funding them secretly it’s doing so openly through what used to be called voucher programs but are now called “school choice.” And the racist rage that went into organizing the White Citizens’ Councils and the Ku Klux Klan is alive and well today, though more subtly directed since one enduring triumph of the civil rights movement was it made it decidedly unfashionable and de trop to express racist prejudices directly — so instead you talk about “urban” people, you pass draconian anti-drug laws to make sure as many people of color as possible spend their adulthoods in prisons instead of either working, building a business community or organizing for change, and when one of “Them” gets elected President you start a preposterous rumor campaign claiming that he’s not even a U.S.-born citizen as the Constitution requires — and though most Obama-bashing is about his party, not his race, the “birther” movement is a clear metaphor for a racist prejudice targeting the way in which Obama is different — visibly so — from the 42 men who’ve occupied the Presidency before him.