Grand Opening: The Mississippi Sovereignty Commission

Grand Opening: The Mississippi Sovereignty Commission

By Bill Minor

Vol. 20, No. 2, 1998 pp. 20-22

Mississippi recently had a Grand Opening. The grand opening of what? The old state Sovereignty Commission files, of course.

Many in the news profession have been itching to get their hands on the whole sorry mass of tomfoolery the old state segregation watchdog agency was up to during its seventeen years of existence from 1956 to 1973.

used to refer to it as the “KGB of the cotton patches” because of the way its agents went around spying on a lot of poor Black folks, many not long from the farm, if they bucked the system of white mastery. Of course, they also spied on some white folks as well, and doted on tracking anybody who came down from Yankee-land to “sow discord” among our happy Black folks.

The Mississippi Sovereignty Commission was largely a Keystone Kops operation, a bunch of bumbling would-be sleuths trying to prop up a dying system of white supremacy. What Commission agents mostly did, sinister though much of it was, was to compile a gumbo of innuendo, hearsay, and utterly false information about individuals who somehow came within the Commission’s scope.

My view is that what will be found in the files will offer very few nuggets of news or revelations not already revealed in print. What has been seen earlier, however, amounts to only part of the Sovereignty Commission files. The Grand Opening opens the whole works.

Looking at some of the Commission’s files brings back memories of how, as the Mississippi correspondent for the New Orleans Times-Picayune in the1950s and 60s, I constantly kept an eye on the Sovereignty agency, which had its office just down the hall from the press room at the state Capitol.

Opening of the entire Commission files results from a court order by U.S. District Judge William Barbour, who several years ago struck down an act of the Mississippi Legislature which had sealed the files for fifty years. His order turned the details of opening the files over to the state’s Department of Archives and History, which systematically cataloged the files and classified names appearing therein as “actors” and “victims.” An actor is anyone the Commission considered to have done something beneficial to the Commission and a victim was anyone under the Commission’s scrutiny.

According to the glossary which Archives and History prepared, I show up twice as an actor and twenty-three times as a victim. But I have not bothered to check out each instance I show up in the files.

Over the years I’ve seen some copies of some of the reports that went into the Commission files concerning me and they related to the journalistic work I was doing. For instance, the late Erle Johnston, the ex-Forest, Mississippi weekly editor who served as the agency’s executive director for six years, had reported to the Commission that he had “straightened Minor out” after I had broken stories that didn’t make his outfit look very good. My old friend Erle did assure me back some years ago that he had seen to it that my personal file had been shredded before he left the Commission in the late 1960s. As for “straightening me out,” I always kidded him as a miserable failure.

Governor J. P. Coleman, a moderate for his time, is credited or blamed for creation of the Sovereignty Commission in 1956. However difficult it may be for some to understand today, Coleman was under siege, at the time, by forces of the powerful segregationist white Citizens’ Council which controlled a large part of the Legislature.

Although, in conscience, Coleman opposed the idea of creating a segregation strategy agency in state government, he theorized that it was a way to keep the extremists off his back and that he could control what the agency did. Indicative of his restraint was an incident in May, 1959 when a Sovereignty Commission investigator intercepted a bizarre plan hatched by Citizens’ Council braintrusters to have NAACP national director Roy Wilkins arrested when he spoke in Jackson.

At the last minute, the Commission investigator stopped a Hinds County deputy from arresting Wilkins on an affidavit sworn out by a segregationist who later admitted to being put up to it by Citizens’ Council mogul William J. Simmons. The affidavit charged Wilkins with advocating overthrow of a 1956 state segregation law. Had Wilkins been arrested on such a charge in Mississippi, it would have given the state another huge black eye.

Citizens’ Council leaders seized control of the spy agency, ending the relative moderation of the Sovereignty Commission, when Coleman left office in 1960 and Ross Barnett moved in. Aside from getting the Sovereignty Commission to funnel some $100,000 in state funds to support Citizens’ Council programs, the Council also got the agency to do much of its footwork.

Of all the mean things done by the old state Sovereignty Commission, one of the most despicable was aimed in 1962 at weekly editor Hazel Brannon Smith of Lexington, Mississippi. At the time, Smith was struggling against an economic boycott of her Lexington Advertiser launched by the white Citizens’ Council in Holmes County.

The Lexington woman editor, who was white, had become friendly with some of the young civil rights workers based in Jackson who wanted to start a little newspaper called the Free Press. Because they were unable to get it printed in Jackson they asked Smith to print it for them in her Lexington plant. Needing the little additional revenue, she agreed to.

If she was not already under scrutiny by the Sovereignty Commission, Smith now became a prime target of Sovereignty agents. They tracked her every move. One day when she and her husband, Walter, delivered bundles of the Free Press to the office of the little paper, Sovereignty agents armed with cameras photographed the whole thing, showing Smith with several of the civil rights workers known to the Commission.

That was when another dark, deep charade was perpetrated by the Sovereignty Commission. It turned over copies of the photographs to an arch-segregationist state senator from Smith’s Holmes County. Next day, he took the floor of the state Legislature and, waving the damning photographs, denounced Smith as some kind of traitor to the state of Mississippi.

Of course, this entire sorry episode was calculated for one thing: to deliver the final economic blow to the already vulnerable Lexington Advertiser and drive Hazel Smith out of town, perhaps the state. But Hazel Brannon Smith was a tough customer. Somehow she kept the paper going, though barely. She was, however, so financially wounded that she would never recover.

Her editorial courage the following year in 1964 moved the Pulitzer Prize Committee to award Hazel its prize for editorial writing, which it said demonstrated “steadfast adherence to her editorial duty in the face of great pressure and opposition.”

In the early 1980s her husband Walter died. Then, after struggling more than a decade for survival, her newspaper succumbed amid a sea of debt in 1985. Not long after, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and in the spring of 1994, completely broke, Hazel died in a nursing home in Cleveland, Tennessee.

Back in the halcyon days of the Lexington Advertiser in the 1940s and early1950s, when she was a dazzling brunette bachelor lady, Hazel was the belle of the Mississippi Press Association. When she floated through the lobby of Biloxi’s grand old Buena Vista Hotel at MPA conventions, the lustful eyes of a dozen or more country editors followed her every move. Her Cinderella world changed radically, however, after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education desegregation ruling, which inspired the birth of the white Citizens’ Council in Mississippi. Holmes County became a hotbed of Council support.

Then, in 1955, when Hazel blasted the local sheriff for shooting a Black man in the back for no cause, the segregationist Council initiated its systematic boycott to destroy her newspaper. The sheriff sued her for liable, winning a judgment in the county circuit court. The judgment was overturned later by the state Supreme Court, but the expense of defending herself sent her into financial straits.

In 1993 a somewhat fictionalized movie of Hazel’s lonely battle against racial bigotry as a courageous editor was produced by the ABC network. It fell far short of telling the full story of her struggle against Mississippi’s Citizens’ Council and Sovereignty Commission and the paper’s demise.

The Sovereignty Commission was finally put out of business in 1973 when Gov. Bill Waller vetoed its appropriation, ending another sordid chapter of Mississippi history.

Sidebar: Alabama’s Segregationist Agency’s Files Still Closed

From Montgomery Advertiser, March 23, 1998. Reprinted with the permission of the Associated Pres.

The files of the Alabama Commission to Preserve the Peace, a state-funed gumshoe operation that snooped on civil rights activists and liberals in the 1960s and 1970s, have never been made public, unlike the files of a similar agency in Mississippi now drawing intense scrutiny.

Bur Steve Suitts [former executive director of SRC], who won federal court orders that closed down the Alabama commission and sealed its files in 1976, said he would have no problem with the public release of files if those named in the documents grant permission.

If opened, however, the files of the Alabama agency likely would be far less revealing than those in Mississippi of the clandestine conduct of state-paid spies who tracked black leaders, liberals, and social progressives of the era.

for one, all of the photographs were missing when a federal judge ordered the Alabama files impounded in 1976. Also, there were large gaps in the paper records; an agency worker testified some had been burned after the commission was sued.

“Clearly there had been some housekeeping,” said Suitts.

But what was left, he said, “was not as thorough or revealing as the files of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission.” Those files, after years of litigation, were made public last week, shedding new light on the secret lengths to which the segregationist power structure would go to curb those it saw as a threat.

Suitts, who in hte 1970s was director of th Alabama Civil Liberties Union and is now a wrtier and consultant in Atlanta, said in an interview there is nothing to prevent people from trying to find out through sourt procedures if they were named in the Alabama commission’s files or somehow wronged by the agency–and, if so, getting to see their file.

He said the files were sealed by then-U.S. District Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr. “to protect individuals from the release of information often having no basis in fact–that could harm people.”

Suitts and the attorney who handled the case, Jack Drake, both said last week that the surviving files they saw in the mid-70s did not contain any direct acts by the commission. “One thing I remember is how amateurish the Alabama operation was,” said Drake.

But they said the files linked the commission to those who did have power to harm, and who were notorious for disregarding the rights of blacks and others seeking civil rights and an end to segregation during those years.

Suitts said the commission’s documents showed “the extent with which it was willing to vilify even the most innocent.” A new Head Start program, he said, was described in the commission files as “a future breeding ground for communism,” even though it was simply trying to teach little kids to read and write.”

Averaging three stories a day as a stringer for national media like the Associated Press, Newsweek, and The New York Times, and for many years at the New Orleans Times Picayune, Mississippi journalist Bill Minor helped bring the nation’s attention to the civil rights movement, Southern injustices, and corruption. Bricks and bullets shattered the windows and a cross was burned at the Capitol Reporter office, the weekly paper he owned in Jackson, after he published articles detailing the Klan’s resurgence and influence in state government. (For more about Minor, see “Eyes on Mississippi” in the August/September 1992 Southern Changes.)