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The Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission

The wall of white opposition to the civil rights movement was reinforced by a state-funded organization called the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission. It was a spy agency and a propaganda machine. Formed in 1956 by the Mississippi legislature, the Sovereignty Commission hired investigators and local informants to monitor and disrupt civil rights activities across the state. It kept surveillance files on scores of people reputed to be involved in civil rights organizations.

Historian Robby Luckett says the Sovereignty Commission, “had their hands in every single major event that had anything to do with civil rights in Mississippi.” According to Luckett, the Commission sometimes hired black informants. “They paid money to black Mississippians to infiltrate the meetings of civil rights activists,” he says.

Historian Charles Bolton writes that the commission “vigorously investigated numerous rumors of planned school desegregation efforts around the state…provid[ing] local officials with information to undermine the attempts.”

The agency also set up a national speaker’s bureau, sending polished, articulate ambassadors for Mississippi to northern states to argue for the benign qualities of segregation. In 1956, the agency brought 18 journalists from small New England newspapers to Mississippi to see for themselves how well race relations functioned in the South. “The grand idea was that we could turn the Sovereignty Commission into a big public relations agency,” recalled former director Erle Johnston. “We recognized that one civil rights murder was worse than a hundred blacks getting Ph.D. degrees, you know. But the idea was that we could try as much as we could to overcome the attitude outside Mississippi that we were a lawless state as far as race was concerned. We never got anywhere with it,” Johnson said in a 1980 oral history interview.

In fact, the duties of the Sovereignty Commission were quite broad. Sarah Rowe-Sims, an expert on the Sovereignty files, writes: “From 1956 to 1973, the commission spied on civil rights workers, acted as a clearinghouse for information on civil rights activities and legislation from around the nation, funneled money to pro-segregation causes, and distributed right-wing propaganda.”

Horace Harned was an early member of the commission. He says the commission’s tactics were essential, because Mississippi was at risk. The state was, “under the threat of being overrun by an alien force led by the communists. Whether it was legal or not…never bothered me,” he says. Sitting by the fire in his Mississippi farmhouse, Harned is proud of the commission’s work. “We kept the radicals and communist-led marchers from taking over Mississippi,” he told a reporter, “It was a necessary job.”

To learn much more about the history of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission and explore Commission files, click here.

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