Facts about Mississippi Sovereignty Commission

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AP 18-MAR-98

Some facts about the now-defunct Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, whose files were opened to the public Tuesday.

FOUNDED: Created by legislative act in 1956, two years after the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education outlawed segregated schools.

MISSION: The Legislature created the commission to "protect the sovereignty of the State of Mississippi and her sister states" from federal government interference. In practice, it worked to preserve a segregated society and to oppose school integration. In secret, the commission harassed and spied on activists, branding many of them racial agitators and communist infiltrators.

MEMBERSHIP: The commission had 12 appointed members, including state lawmakers and gubernatorial appointees. The governor, lieutenant governor, speaker of the House of Representatives and attorney general were ex-officio members; each governor served as commission chairman.

STAFF: At its first meeting, the commission hired an executive director to oversee daily operations. Its first investigators were a former chief of the Mississippi Highway Patrol and a former FBI agent. The commission also hired a full-time public relations director to devise projects that would portray Mississippi in a favorable light.

BUDGET: The state granted the commission $250,000 a year in operating expenses.

AUTHORITY: The commission had subpoena power, but there is no indication it was ever used. The commission also had legal authority to keep its records and files secret. Violation of the secrecy provision could result in a $100 fine and six months in jail.

GATHERING INFORMATION: The commission staff collected information through its own agents, a network of spies, through exchanges with law enforcement agencies and by working with the white supremacist Citizens Council. It also subscribed to newspapers and magazines from around the country. From 1960 through 1964, the commission gave the Citizens Council, a private organization, more than $190,000 in tax money.

CLOSED: The commission officially closed in 1977, four years after then-Gov. Bill Waller vetoed funding.

LEGAL ISSUES: State lawmakers in 1977 ordered the files sealed until 2027. The American Civil Liberties Union sued, and in 1989 U.S. District Judge William H. Barbour Jr. ordered the state to open the records. Legal challenges over privacy issues delayed the release nine more years.

FILES: The records opened Tuesday contain more than 132,000 documents and an estimated 87,000 names, some of which may be improper spellings of the same name or nicknames. The names of 42 people will remain private until their deaths, a provision allowed under federal court order.

PREPARATION: All documents have been electronically reproduced and indexed and will be available only on computer. The effort by the state Department of Archives and History took four years and cost almost $600,000.

Copyright 1998& The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.




Mississippi Commission's Files a Treasure Trove of Innuendo

AP 18-MAR-98

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 Schwerner.

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 church.

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 years.

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 and misinformation.

The Legislature created the commission to "protect the sovereignty of the State of Mississippi and her sister states" from federal government interference. In practice, it worked to preserve a segregated society and to oppose school integration.

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 and state law officers.

"The actions and methods of members of the Justice Department, especially the 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, I have 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 car 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 period.

"Sheriff Rainey advised me that he expected to be arrested by the FBI at any time; in fact, he had already called (state) Attorney General Joe T. Patterson to 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 in 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 when he 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 kill Schwerner was formulated over a period of several weeks and Chaney and Goodman just happened to be along when he was murdered."

Copyright 1998& The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistribute