Author Rick Bowers spoke recently at the Museum’s Spies of the Civil Rights Movement program. Here he answers some questions concerning the program and his book Spies of Mississippi: The True Story of the Spy Network that Tried to Destrpy the Civil Rights Movement
What was the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission and why was it formed?
The Commission was formed in 1956 as a direct response to the Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs Board or Education mandating public school integration. The Commission was to serve as the state’s segregation watchdog agency and was granted broad powers to infiltrate private organizations, keep secret records and take behind-the-scene actions to preserve segregation.
What was the original scope of the Commission and how did it evolve over time into a spy network?
The Commission began as a pro-segregation propaganda service that promoted the virtues of a segregated society. Within the first couple of years the Commission began hiring investigators to provide the leadership of the state with intelligence on the NAACP. Faced with the challenge of infiltrating the civil rights groups, the self-described “segregation watchdog agency” started building a network of black collaborators to spy on their own.
What was the extent of this network of informants at its height?
By the mid 1960s the program had evolved into a clandestine secret police operation, spying on more than 87,000 individuals and organizations and building an investigative file totaling more than 143,000 pages. White judges, sheriffs, deputies, clergymen, business owners and journalists served as informants. A surprising number of conservative black community leaders — as well as private detectives — worked undercover for the Commission to ferret out the secrets of the civil rights movement.
What were the ramifications of being added to the Commission’s ‘watch list?’
To be on the Commission’s watch list meant that you were suspected on participating in subversive activities for the civil rights movement. The first step would usually involve a Commission investigator paying you a visit and interviewing family members, employers, clergy etc. Dirty tricks could include getting the suspect fired from his/or her job or evicted from their home. In more serious cases suspects could be arrested on false charges, sent to prison or their names could be forwarded to the White Citizens Council or the Ku Klux Klan for much worse treatment.
What was the lasting influence of the Commission on Mississippi after segregation?
When the Commission files were finally made public in the late ’90s the public came to realize the vast scope of the secret spy operation and the extreme abuse of power perpetrated by the segregationist state. However little action was taken to address the abuse since — in many respects — the entire state government was complicit. In addition entire families were split apart when it was discovered that some members had taken payments from the commission to spy on their own relatives. While the state had certainly moved on from this period, the Commission remains an emotional topic for those who spied and those who were spied upon.