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Mississippi’s Dangerous Attention

In today's Clarion Ledger, Jerry Mitchell published information about the abduction, torture and interrogation in southwest Mississippi of 16 other Black men---in addition to Henry Dee and Charles Moore---during the first months of 1964. Mitchell's article is based on a Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission report [pdf] which has long intrigued and disturbed me. The Sovereignty Commission was the spy agency established by the Mississippi State Legislature in 1956, to monitor and oppose civil rights activity. The Commission's files were declassified in 1998 and are available online. The report suggests that what happened to Henry Dee and Charles Moore was part of a pattern of systematic abductions and brutal interrogations to gain intelligence about Black people who were involved in organizations, such as the NAACP, supporting the right to register and vote and---as the Dee-Moore case has brought out---organizing armed self-defense against their white attackers.

From February 18-20, 1964, Sovereignty Commission Investigator A.L. Hopkins investigated three abductions and beatings of Black men, reported by the Natchez Sheriff's Department: Alfred Whitley on February 7, James C. Winston on February 15 and Archie Curtis and Willie Jackson together on February 16. Deputy Sheriff Mario Hernandez told Hopkins that while these men had come forward, they were just four of 16 Black men who had been similarly brutalized.

Mitchell uses Alfred Whitley's story to illustrate the nature of the abductions, "eerily similar ... to what happened three months later when Klansmen reportedly abducted two African-American teenagers, beat them, tied them up and drowned them." According to the original Sheriff's case file, Whitley was stopped by men wearing white masks while on his way home from work at Armstrong Tire & Rubber Co., at midnight.

He was taken from his car, put face down in [their] car on the floor. After about 30 minutes to 1 hour the cars stopped, about 10 men took him out of the car, cut his clothes off and beat him with 2 bull whips and cat tail, made him drink a bottle of Castor Oil and run shooting over his head.... All the time the whipping lasted, approximately 1 or 2 hours, they questioned him about the NAACP and Masonic organizations.

Whitley's back was a mass of marks and cuts.

According to Whitley's niece, Janie, whom Mitchell interviewed, her uncle "came out missing one eye, a lung ... His ribs were broken. He was never the same afterward." Whitley's niece emphasizes that her uncle Alfred was not a member of the NAACP. Nonetheless, he---and other victims---were targeted because they were suspected of being members or having knowledge of others who were members.

Whitley and other victims of these roving Klan torture and interrogation units may well have been targeted because of what Rita Schwerner Bender, widow of slain civil rights worker Michael Schwerner, has called "the dangerous attention of the Commission."

Speaking at the Crimes of the Civil Rights Era conference held in Boston in April, Bender said:

The violence was not the isolated acts of a few crazed individuals acting as a mob. Rather these crimes are heavily tainted with governmental misconduct. The Sovereignty Commission funded the White Citizens Council, which used this money for a campaign which spread a virulent racist ideology which served intentionally to encourage violence.

Archie Curtis, one of the other victims, and George West, about whom Curtis was interrogated, were identified as possible members of the NAACP in a 1959 Sovereignty Commission investigation into the "racial situation in Natchez and Adams County." On June 24, 1960, Natchez Chief of Police S.C. Craft reported to Sovereignty Commission investigator Andy Hopkins that Archie Curtis and George West were two of four leaders in the Natchez Business and Service League, which law enforcement officials believed was a front for the NAACP.

After its initial findings, the Sovereignty Commission decided to investigate Curtis and West more fully---which also served to spread the word in the community that Curtis and West were suspected of being involved in the NAACP. On June 13 and 14, 1961, the Sovereignty Commission Director Albert Jones sent letters inquiring about Archie Curtis to five county officials: William T. Ferrell, Sheriff and Tax Collector; Robert E. Burns, Chancery Clerk; A.V. Davis, Jr., Circuit Clerk; Mrs. R. Brent Forman, Tax Assessor; and Claude Pintard, Jr., County Attorney. Each letter asked for general information about Curtis and sometimes requested information specific to the official's office, such as asking Sheriff Ferrell for Curtis' poll tax payment history and for his criminal record, if any. In addition, every letter but one asks the county official whether he or she has "information" regarding Curtis' "activity with the NAACP" or with "other subversive organizations." On June 30, 1964, Albert Jones sent five very similarly worded letters, requesting information about Geroge West, to the same five Adams County officials. All of the letters inquiring about West include requests for information about his involvement in the NAACP. (Letters 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)

It is also possible that the Sovereignty Commission inquiries concerning Curtis and West served as direct tip-offs to the Klan. When Paul Hendrickson, author of Sons of Mississippi, asked Ty Ferrell whether his grandfather, former Adams County Sheriff William T. Ferrell, was a Klansman, Ty Ferrell replied, "An elected official in a little Mississippi community? I can almost not imagine him being in the Klan." Hendrickson also found that many, researchers and local people alike, have thought that Ferrell was a member of the Klan or, at very least, closely associated with Klan members. While not at all conclusive, Sheriff Ferrell's likely ties to the Klan are suggestive of how the 1961 Sovereignty Commission investigation of Archie Curtis and George West may have been what led the Klan to target Curtis and other Black men for abduction and interrogation.

"The Sovereignty Commission hired staff investigators," Bender continued, in her talk in April.

It employed informants. The investigators spied on people. The reports were transmitted to the governor and disseminated with the deliberate intent to cause damage to persons who were perceived as enemies of the status quo ... resulting in beatings, fire bombings and murders.

Curtis, a funeral home director and ambulance driver, was indeed a member of the NAACP and was not afraid to speak about his experience. He reported what happened to him not only to the Sheriff's Department but also to civil rights workers in the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) and later to an investigator from the Voter Education Project of the Southern Regional Council and in May 1964 hearings of the Mississippi Advisory Committee to the US Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR). COFO's initial March 18, 1964 report to the Mississippi Advisory Committee to the USCCR includes Curtis' story, as told to the COFO workers.

Archie Curtis of Natchez received a phone call at 12:45 A.M. He was told to go to Palestine Road and go "two miles past the black top" where "a man with a lantern will be waiting to show you the way to Henry Goodman's house." (He was told that Mrs. Goodman had had a heart attack and needed an ambulance.)

Curtis went out to Palestine Road as requested accompanied by Willie Jackson. After going two miles past the black top, they did not see anyone with a light. Curtis blew his horn. A car pulled up behind the ambulance. Two white men got out of the left side and two white men got out of the right side. All four had white hoods over their heads. One had a gun in his hand. Curtis and Jackson were told to get out of the ambulance. Curtis told them to go away because he had no time for foolishness. Curtis told them he was looking for a Mr. Goodman. One of the four white men said, "I'm Henry Goodman. I am the one who called you for an ambulance-and damn it, I want you to get out." Another of the four men walked over the driver's side of the vehicle and asked Curtis while pointing a gun at him. "Didn't you hear him say get out?" Curtis turned to get out-they caught his hand and hit his hand pit. Curtis got out of the ambulance, he was told to take off his glasses. Curtis was slow getting them off; one of the men grabbed them and threw them away. Next Curtis and Jackson were blindfolded and carried to the white men's car, pushed in the car. Both Curtis and Jackson were put in the front of the car and driven down to a field called Duck Pond. They were told to get out of the car in Duck Pond, which they did; they were told to remove their clothes. They refused. After being hit "two or three times," they dropped their pants. Curtis was told to hand over his NAACP card. Curtis replied saying he didn't have a NAACP card. He was told "yes, you have and that damn West has a NAACP card too." Curtis said "I don't think West has one." Curtis and Jackson were told to lie on their stomachs and then they were beaten. One of the four men suggested killing them-but another said no "lets [sic] just leave them out here." Curtis and Jackson went to a friends' house and got a ride into town.

In his February 20, 1964 Sovereignty Commission report concerning the "whippings and armed robberies of Negro men in Adams County by hooded or masked men," Hopkins named ten suspects in the beatings, including James Seale and his brother Jack Seale, who were both later implicated in the murders of Dee and Moore. Hopkins also named Tiny Lewis, "a Colonel on Governor Johnson's staff."

As far as anyone knows, Dee and Moore were of no interest to the Sovereignty Commission until after their dismembered bodies were found in a Mississippi River backwater on July 12 and 13, 1964. But the Mississippi state spy agency cultivated the climate of suspicion and intimidation which nurtured units of Klansmen who believed they could abduct, torture and murder with impunity any Blacks suspected of organizing for civil rights, self-determination or self-defense.

It is worth asking why Dee and Moore were murdered while other torture victims were left to nurse their wounds. It is also worth asking whether other unnamed victims were murdered by these Klan interrogation units. The courtroom will not tell, but history---and justice---demand an answer.

Belated Justice for Civil Rights Era Crimes (The American Prospect)

{ 3 comments… add one }
  • Jared Story June 11, 2007, 2:11 pm

    Ben, this commentary, with such specific details, really puts the Sovereignty Commission into perspective. It expresses why single prosecutions in these selectively pursued cases do not warrant closure as suggested by Gov. Barbour and the Mississippi p.r. campaign. Moreover, it demonstrates just how many victims there must be who deserve justice and how many perpetrators there must be who should be held accountable.

    Speaking of p.r., every speaker at Ms. Chaney’s recent funeral stood at the podium in front of the Chaney family to address them directly. Jim Hood, however, apparently did not want to be obscured by the large floral display that had partially blocked the video camera’s view of Ramsey Clarke and other speakers who came before and after him. Hood made his way to the unobstructed podium on the other side of the church. There he made a vain speech during which his reference to Ms. Chaney served only to tell his own story. From my perspective, his description of the spiritual experience of touching Ms. Chaney’s hand, as he led her to the stand to testify, served two purposes: it provided him with a way to counter Ben Chaney’s and others’ criticism by stressing Ms. Chaney’s forgiveness and compassion while ignoring her own sense of incomplete and imperfect justice and her boldness as she took the stand; and it provided him with a glorious climax for his narrative about his life being somehow ordained to prosecute the case and redeem Mississippi.

    Thankfully, there are people like you who are telling the full truth and seeking real justice.

  • Benjamin T. Greenberg June 11, 2007, 11:17 pm

    Jared, spot on concerning the insufficiency of “single prosecutions in these selectively pursued cases.” More here on this subject soon.

    What you say about Jim Hood at Mrs. Chaney’s funeral reminds me of his boorish comments during closing statements at the Killen trial:

    Some of you have asked why I am here. . . Because this is where justice is done.

    I wish some of my predecessors had done their duty. I wouldn’t have to be here, to have missed my daughter’s second birthday.

    Nobody should want to miss their kid’s birthday, but when the victims’ families had by then missed celebrating 41 birthdays, the comment seems just a little off.

    It’s a shame that he had to be so crass about using Mrs. Chaney’s funeral to serve his own political aspirations. He’s really got a lot of nerve.

    Your report that the criticism came from Ben Chaney “and others” is important. The story on the funeral in the Meridian Star made it sound like all was joyful at the funeral until Ben Chaney took the mike.

    The entire service wasn’t joyful though, as Ben Chaney, son to the deceased, left harsh words for those individuals he believed unjustly used his mother’s legacy.

    “She was such a forgiving woman when she lived,” said Chaney. “You’re going to find out that her son is not as forgiving. I’m not going to let you abuse my mother in death, like you did in life. When our home had a cross burned on the front lawn, a group of civil right’s leaders met right in this church to discuss what should be done. Not one of those leaders came to see if my mother was OK … It was a bitter pill for my mother to swallow when she came back to Meridian and saw that nothing had changed. Now that she’s gone, who’s going to stand in the gap for you?”

    It is ironic that the Meridian Star itself is unjustly using Mrs. Chaney’s legacy in order to engage in character assassination. Character assassination seems to be popular among the newspaper editors in that part of Mississippi.

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