Mississippi Commission's Files a
Treasure Trove of Innuendo
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) After the disappearance of three civil rights workers
during Mississippi's Freedom Summer, local lawmen complained to the state's
segregationist Sovereignty Commission of being elbowed out of the investigation
by FBI agents who considered them suspects.
A sheriff who is forever linked to the murders of the three young men even
confided to commission investigators that he expected to be arrested.
The revelations were included in more than 132,000 previously secret files made
public Tuesday under federal court order.
In its heyday, the agency's investigators and snitches flooded the commission
with every conceivable tidbit of fact and fiction on groups and individuals they
considered communists or threats to white rule.
Reports filed from June 1964 to January 1965 by commission investigator A.L.
Hopkins quote angry lawmen in Neshoba County, where the three men were
murdered, complaining bitterly of being kept out of the loop.
As early as July 2, 1964 33 days before the bodies would be found Sheriff
Lawrence Rainey told Hopkins he expected to be picked up by the FBI as a
suspect in the disappearance of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael
Chaney, of Meridian, and New Yorkers Schwerner and Goodman disappeared
June 21 after going to investigate a fire at Mount Zion Methodist Church in
Sandtown, a community in the central Mississippi county.
Their bodies were found Aug. 4, buried in a dirt dam a few miles from the
Four months later, Rainey and Chief Deputy Cecil Price were behind bars,
charged with conspiracy. Seven Ku Klux Klansmen, including Price and
Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers of Laurel, were convicted of federal civil rights
violations in the deaths. They received prison terms ranging from three to 10
None served more than six years, and the state of Mississippi never brought
murder charges. Rainey was never convicted of a crime in the case that inspired
the film "Mississippi Burning."
The documents provide a chilling look at the state's segregated past.
Born of fears that followed federally ordered school integration, the Sovereignty
Commission was created in 1956. The agency outwardly extolled racial
harmony, but it secretly paid investigators and spies to gather both information
The Legislature created the commission to "protect the sovereignty of the
of Mississippi and her sister states" from federal government interference.
practice, it worked to preserve a segregated society and to oppose school
The 12-member commission was disbanded in 1977, and state lawmakers
ordered its files sealed until 2027. In 1989, a federal judge ordered the records
opened, though legal challenges delayed their release for nine years.
Its secrets had been locked away in the vaults of the state Department of
Archives & History until this week.
Now journalists and historians are examining documents that show a
mind-boggling, tedious observation of the daily lives of the commission's victims.
Some of the files border on the ridiculous lists of license tag numbers, where
someone bought chicken feed, grades earned in World Geography and U.S.
History, even the registration number on a birth certificate.
But the files on the Neshoba County murders were anything but frivolous.
Records speak of FBI bribes and threats to get leads into the disappearance,
and portray an investigation dominated by the FBI to the humiliation of local
state law officers.
"The actions and methods of members of the Justice Department, especially
FBI, in the course of their current investigation ... in my opinion, amounts to
encroachment and usurpation of the rights and powers reserved to this state,"
Hopkins wrote in one memo.
"In the 21 years that I have been active as an officer and investigator,
never witnessed an investigation by the FBI where they came into an area and
completely took charge as they have in this case."
One of Hopkins' first reports on the three workers was in March 1964, when he
was asked to check the background of a new voting rights worker who had
shown up in Meridian. The worker turned out to be Schwerner.
Within three months, Hopkins was checking on a church fire in Neshoba County
for the commission and ultimately into the deaths of the three civil rights workers.
And a month later, Hopkins had joined Rainey and Price in complaining about
the FBI's tactics, including its failure to inform the sheriff's office when
Schwerner's burned-out Ford Fairlane station wagon was found June 23.
"Sheriff Rainey resented the attitude of the FBI agents at the scene of the
burning and their lack of cooperation with him in the entire investigation,"
Hopkins wrote July 3.
Over the next two months, Hopkins reported the FBI was offering bribes of up
to $1 million to get information. Rainey's admission to Hopkins came during this
"Sheriff Rainey advised me that he expected to be arrested by the FBI at
time; in fact, he had already called (state) Attorney General Joe T. Patterson
ascertain the procedure in making bond after he is arrested," Hopkins said.
All the while, Hopkins speculated that the parties who told the FBI about the
burned car and ultimately the location of the bodies "must have been involved
some way either as a witness or as a participant in the crime."
Hopkins tried to keep commission members up to date on developments.
On Aug. 6, he reported that agents had been led to the grave by Olen Burrage,
who owns the property where the dam stood. That information, he wrote, came
from an informant identified only as "M."
In the same file, however, Hopkins cited another commission spy who told him
the FBI informant was an alcoholic "sleeping off" a drunk in the woods
was awakened by the commotion of the burial.
In a Dec. 8 report, Hopkins said yet another spy told him of a third possible
informant James Edward Jordan of Gulfport, one of those arrested.
That memo also summarized the sad conclusion of the FBI, that "the plot to
Schwerner was formulated over a period of several weeks and Chaney and
Goodman just happened to be along when he was murdered."
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