Sovereignty Files Reveal Parade of 'Little People' Targeted by Fearful Segregationists

AP 21-MAR-98

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) Joe Hutcherson wiped ashtrays and swept the marbled corridors of Mississippi's Capitol in the 1950s, virtually invisible among the state's white movers and shakers.

But like thousands of blacks relegated to menial jobs in a state whose official policy was strict segregation, Hutcherson lost his invisibility the minute he stepped outside his expected place.

A spy for the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, which operated for 21 years as the eyes and ears of Mississippi's crusade against integration, was there when Hutcherson attended an NAACP meeting in Jackson. Writing down license tag numbers of cars parked outside such meetings and tracing the owners was a favorite commission tactic.

It cost Hutcherson his lowly janitor's job. Exactly what attracted commission investigators and snitches to their victims, many of them the most ordinary of people, is only now becoming known. A federal court finally ordered its long-sealed files opened on Tuesday. A throng of journalists and curious citizens jockeyed for computer time under strict time limitations for piecemeal glimpses of the agency's 132,000 documents.

One of those files, filed in October 1958 by a commission investigator, notes Hutcherson's dismissal and the meeting of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The document was part of an investigation seeking to identify the author of a petition that urged racial integration of the state's schools,

Ironically, the same report said Hutcherson was "not a person of in influence who would be effective among the Negroes in the community." In addition, Hutcherson's daughter was attending college, planning to become a teacher a fact, the report said, that "would undoubtedly prevent Hutcherson from getting mixed up in any integration petition."

No other references to Hutcherson were found in records examined last week, and attempts to learn his current whereabouts failed.

State Rep. Charles Young, a veteran of the civil rights struggle, said most of those who suffered true abuse by the commission were ordinary people known only to family and neighbors.

He said blacks were well aware they could be fired or otherwise harassed for attending civil rights meetings, even for associating with "wrong people." But that didn't stop them.

"We had missions to fulfill," Young said. "It meant you had to fulfill your mission regardless of what you had to do."

Amos McLaurin was another ordinary citizen found in the Sovereignty files.

Described as a "colored male" who owned a hotel or rooming house in Philadelphia, Miss., he apparently drew the attention of a commission snitch because of a rumor. Word circulated that he'd been approached to supply lodging for an "agitation group," perhaps the NAACP, during Freedom Summer of 1964, when scores of college students poured into Mississippi to test segregation.

To derail this possibility, commission director Erle Johnston sent a "personal and confidential" memo to the state Public Service Commission in April 1964. He carefully noted that McLaurin ran a small trucking operation, a business subject to PSC regulation.

"It is recommended by this office that everything possible be done to discourage the subject from making his motel available to these groups," Johnston wrote.

There is no telephone listing for McLaurin in the current Philadelphia directory.

The files, composed as they are of sometimes fragmentary snooping, do not readily offer complete, coherent accounts of harassment. It's known that commission officials purged individual documents and entire files before they were ordered sealed in 1977.

But decades removed from the events, the suspicion and fear that marked the civil rights era are easy to spot in the amateur investigations.

Files were started on two brothers, black funeral home operators in Vicksburg, when they applied to be notarys public, which required state licenses.

An April 1961 report labeled George Jefferson "an agitator" with membership in the NAACP. His notary application was rejected, based on a recommendation sent to Gov. Ross Barnett by the commission. Jefferson died, of natural causes, a short time later.

His brother, James Jefferson, then applied and was approved. His son, James Jefferson Jr., has copies of the commission reports on his father and uncle. He said his father was probably approved because he worked hard to maintain good relationships with white city and county officials.

"Evidently they polled everybody in the county who would possibly know the person," the son said of the investigation. "I imagine at that time you didn't have that many people in the (black) community who would even bother to go through the process."

James Jefferson Jr. said the report quotes the county sheriff as saying his father "appears to be all right in his line of thought, but that he is a leader among the Negroes in Warren County and bears keeping an eye on."

Some time later, after he got his notary license, his father joined the NAACP.