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A Brief History Of The Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission

The Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission (Commission) was created by an act of the Mississippi legislature on March 29, 1956. The agency was established in the White Millsaps students marching in protest of death of JSU student Ben Brownwake of the May 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling. Like other states below the Mason-Dixon Line, Mississippi responded to Brown with legislation to shore up the walls of racial separation. The act creating the Commission provided the agency with broad powers. The Commission's objective was to "do and perform any and all acts deemed necessary and proper to protect the sovereignty of the state of Mississippi, and her sister states . . ." from perceived "encroachment thereon by the Federal Government or any branch, department or agency thereof." To exercise this loosely define objective, the Commission was granted extensive investigative powers. The governor was appointed ex-officio chairman of the Commission. Other ex-officio members were the president of the Senate, who was vice-chairman of the Commission; the attorney general; and the Speaker of the House of Representatives. In addition, the Commission comprised the following members; two members from the Senate, appointed by the president of the Senate; and three members from the House of Representatives, appointed by the Speaker. The governor, attorney general and legislators served on the Commission during their tenures in office. The three members appointed by the governor served for the duration of his term. The agency itself was small consisting of a director, public relations director, clerical staff and a handful of investigators.

The Commission's activities were shaped by the preference of the governor and skills of its staff. J.P. Coleman favored a low-key approach, and the Commission handled matters "quietly and effectively" during his term. The Commission compared itself to the FBI and the armed services intelligence agencies, "during times of war seeking out intelligence information about the enemy and what the enemy proposes to do." Coleman used the Commission to "dampen as far as possible racial conflict and violence . . . ." He countered criticism that the agency was inactive, asserting, people "would be amazed if they knew the work the commission has in fact done." He continued, "if the things we have done and our quiet methods of doing it ever get into the newspapers, then our enemies will be fully ALERTED [emphasis his] and the usefulness of the Sovereignty Commission will likewise be at an end." In contrast, Ross Barnett had no patience for the muted methods of the Commission. He envisioned an overt and expanded role for the agency, and under his direction, the Commission initiated a Speakers Bureau to travel the nation presenting the Mississippi perspective. The Commission also sponsored a film entitled "Message from Mississippi," which portrayed segregation in glowing terms. Following the integration debacle at the University of Mississippi, the Commission also assisted with the printing and distribution of the Mississippi General Legislative Investigating Committee's report on the incident, as well as sponsoring and distributing a movie on the subject entitled "Oxford USA."

Under Barnett the investigation team was also expanded. The Commission investigated individuals and organizations that challenged the racial status quo. Commission investigators toured the state and compiled reports on civil rights activities in the counties. They also responded to specific requests from local state officials and members of the public. In addition to staff investigators, the Commission also relied heavily upon informants, a practice begun under Coleman that continued throughout the agency's existence. Payment to informants varied from a few dollars to cover expenses to regular monthly sums of $500. In addition, the Commission employed private detectives, who often acted as intermediaries with informants.

Barnett's expanded role for the Commission also included funding for the Citizens' Councils. In 1960 the Commission voted a grant for $20,000 to the "Council Forum." From this point until December 1964, the Commission documented monthly grants to the Citizens' Council amounting to a total of $193,500. The Commission also participated in the national campaign to prevent the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, establishing and providing funds for the Coordinating Committee for Fundamental American Freedoms. In addition, the agency donated small amounts to African-American individuals and organizations sympathetic to segregation. In 1965, the Commission developed and promoted the Mississippi Negro Citizenship Association. Through this organization the Commission "launched a quiet campaign to encourage qualified Negroes to make applications to vote," hoping to outmaneuver the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) by attracting those they termed the "thinking Negroes of Mississippi."

The courtship of African-American conservatives was consistent with Governor Paul B. Johnson's approach to the integration issue. Mississippi had to appear to be law abiding and in compliance with federal regulations. Image was vital to this scheme, and Erle Johnston and the Commission worked with other state agencies to create Mississippi's new identity. Johnston also took measures to clean up the Commission, instructing removal of all "incriminating" reports, especially those that indicated the Commission helped county registrars stop African-Americans from registering to vote. Johnston now described the investigative work of the Commission as "preventative medicine" to avoid "bad situations," and he asserted that the Commission was "not a super snooping agency trying to crack down on any Negro who raises his hand." Investigators continued to track individuals and groups who challenged racial segregation, although the subjects of investigations were referred to now by the more generic anticommunist term "subversives" rather than the earlier brand "race agitators." The Commission also continued its advisory function, primarily advising how to circumvent civil rights legislation.

(MDAH Archives And Library, Sovereignty Commission Online Agency History)

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