The Secrets of Mississippi

The New Republic
December 21, 1998

Jesse Morris walks past a Civil War memorial that casts a long shadow in front of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. He enters the bunker-like building and passes into a quiet, book-lined library on the ground floor, and he sits down in front of a Hewlett Packard computer. It is one of two PCs with hard drives containing scanned copies of the files of the State Sovereignty Commission. Morris, a civil rights activist in the 1960s, is trying to figure out who betrayed him.

The twelve members of the Sovereignty Commission, created by the state legislature in 1956, included the governor, lieutenant governor, and several legislators. The commission was intended to prevent outsiders from changing Mississippi’s Southern–segregationist–way of life. It was supposed to do this by publicizing how well segregation worked and by secretly keeping watch over those who wished to overturn the system. By the time it closed in 1973, the commission’s investigators had amassed confidential files on 87,000 people, making it the largest state-level spying effort in U.S. history. This past March, after a court struggle lasting longer than the civil rights movement itself, more than 124,000 pages of the commission’s work were released to the public.

I peer over Jesse Morris’s shoulder as he clicks through the archives. His file contains more than 100 documents. By the standards of the Sovereignty Commission, it is a modestly sized dossier. Investigators’ reports are in the form of memos, often on commission letterhead; but reports from informants are usually on plain paper, and the only indication of the author’s identity is a code name scribbled at the top. Most reports filed on Morris were from ” Agent X,” who was secretly paid as much as $500 per month by the commission–big money in Mississippi in those days. “The writer was in conversation with Jessie sic Morris,” a February 5, 1965, memo from Agent X begins. “He plans to go to Holmes County over this weekend and will return Monday. He left Jackson with two white girls, driving a 1964 white Pontiac bearing 1965 Georgia license 1-J10783. He stated that they were having some sort of difficulty with a Community Center in Holmes County and he was going to work with them over the weekend.”

Morris thinks he can identify those who informed on him and his friends. It’s a matter of pinpointing meetings attended by the informers or conversations they were involved in, and then figuring out who was present and who among those present might have been the spy. Even before the formal release of the files in March, many documents were leaked to the press. Because of this, the identity of Agent X has been suspected for some time. Reading his own file, Morris has no doubt that the rumors are true–Agent X was his best friend, a fellow black Mississippian named R.L. Bolden.

Morris is hardly the only person in Mississippi to have found a disquieting revelation in the commission’s files. The release of the documents has held up a mirror to Mississippi, and the mirror shows an ugly reflection from more than 30 years ago. It is the ugliness of informers, of friends ratting on friends, the ugliness of blackmail and a secret spy agency that did as it pleased. Although it is no secret that the Mississippi of three or four decades ago could be a dangerous place for anyone who deviated from the segregationist norm, the opening of the files illustrates the quasi- totalitarian nature of the state government. Thus, it highlights an often- overlooked fact: the struggle for integration in Mississippi was not just a struggle against racism or a struggle for the rights of one oppressed race. It was a struggle for democracy.

Consider this description of a dictatorial state: ” A never-ceasing propagation of the ‘true faith’ must go on relentlessly, with a constantly reiterated demand for loyalty to the united front, requiring that non- conformists and dissenters from the code be silenced, or, in a crisis, driven from the community. Violence and the threat of violence have confirmed and enforced the image of unanimity.” This is not an essay by George Orwell or Vaclav Havel but a passage from Mississippi: The Closed Society, by University of Mississippi history professor James W. Silver. Published in 1963, the book was widely read, particularly at the Sovereignty Commission, which had Silver under surveillance. Indeed, Silver was one of many whites–not all of whom were necessarily liberals–who were spied upon along with blacks. It’s no accident that Mississippi’s leaders called their spy agency the “State Sovereignty Commission” rather than the “State Segregation Commission.” For them, political repression and state sovereignty were inseparable.

If you think that overstates the case, just listen to Horace Harned Jr. recall the good old days, when schools were segregated and blacks could not vote. I met Harned and his wife, Nellie, over a friendly lunch of corn bread, chicken pot pie, and banana pudding in the kitchen of their Starkville farmhouse. “We were riding a high tide until the Supreme Court came along,” he said, his face creased with the wistful smile of a still-proud segregationist. “I was on what you would call the gold team. About a dozen members of the legislature pretty much ran the state.” As one of them, Harned held a seat on the State Sovereignty Commission.

Like a veteran retelling a battle, Harned defends the commission’s work. The government in Washington wanted a direct hand in running things, he says. Civil rights workers were infiltrating the state, stirring up trouble. Mississippi faced a threat to its sovereignty. “All that bunch, Jesse Jackson and Martin Luther King and the whole crowd, they got their orders and their money from the Communist Party,” Harned explains. “The Communists made war down here on us…. They chose Mississippi because they figured if they could break Mississippi everything else would come easily.” Resistance was necessary: “We were fighting to preserve the rights of states, and we were trying to preserve a stable political system.”

But even Harned was surprised when the commission’s files were thrown open. It turns out he had a file, too. There’s nothing too embarrassing in it, aside from correspondence about his request for a probe of efforts to integrate a Baptist church in Starkville. The thought of the commission keeping track of one of its own members makes him laugh so hard his eyes brim with tears of mirth. “I was one of the eighty-eight thousand! We were right serious about it, weren’t we?”

Indeed they were. And so, like the nations of the former Soviet bloc, like South Africa and Argentina and Chile, and unlike any other state in the United States, Mississippi–for all the enormous progress it has made–still bears certain hallmarks of a post-authoritarian society, caught between the urge to remember, the desire for justice, and the need to move on. So far, retrospective justice has been slow in coming. It wasn’t until this year that Klan leader Sam Bowers, now 73, was convicted, in his fifth trial, for the 1966 firebomb murder of civil rights activist Vernon Dahmer. And the state Senate recently voted down a proposed $1.5 million fund to compensate the families of victims of lynching and other racially motivated crimes going back to the 1930s. Outside the legislature, there is talk, but only talk, of setting up a South Africa-style truth commission.

Meanwhile, the commission files have touched off a new discussion eerily parallel to those that have taken place in post-Communist Eastern Europe. Who are the paid state snitches in these files–Agent X, Agent Y, Agent Z, Agent Zero? What should be done about them? What should be done about people who were not informers but had ambiguous, give-and-take relationships with commission investigators? And can the accuracy of these files even be assured? Might the commission be reaching out from its grave and smearing civil rights activists once more? In truth, should the files have been released at all?

The fact that the commission felt it necessary to track one of its own suggests that, as spy agencies go, Mississippi’s was cut from the same paranoid cloth as its counterparts in the former Soviet bloc. But it’s important not to overstate the comparison. By 1989, its final year of operation, East Germany’s Stasi possessed 110,000 regular informers, and its staff exceeded 90,000. Most of the time, the Sovereignty Commission had three full-time investigators and farmed out the rest of its work to private eyes. The number of informers, though hard to pin down because documents are believed to have been destroyed, probably didn’t exceed a few hundred over the life of the commission.

The commission was also amateurish. One report, often cited in the media because it leaked out several years ago and is so wonderfully absurd, describes how an investigator descended upon a white woman who had just given birth to an out-of-wedlock baby. His assignment: to find out whether the rumors were true that the father was black. His strategy: examine the baby’s skin color and finger shape. His conclusion (reached with the local sheriff who accompanied him to the baby’s crib): “We both agreed we were not qualified to say it was a part Negro child, but we could say it was not 100 percent Caucasian.”

According to its files, the commission also made only very limited use of hidden microphones–in contrast to, for instance, the FBI’s extensive surveillance of Martin Luther King. And its agents did not murder or assault; this was left to the Klan and local police forces. It did not use wiretaps. It did not, apparently, open mail. It did not, like East Germany’s obsessive Stasi, collect samples of individual scents and seal them in jars in the event a dissident’s odor would be needed by bloodhounds for tracking purposes.

Much of what the commission amassed is trivial, absurd. It kept files on Elvis Presley (an investigator reporting about a concert where Presley was expected to perform wrote that, though Presley failed to show, “hippies … were observed laying sic around in the grass and doing everything imaginable”); Groucho Marx (because his name appeared on a right-wing group’s list of the “most rabid reds and Fellow-Travelers”); Muhammad Ali (an investigator noted Ali told a crowd in Jackson to support George Wallace for president “because Wallace came out and told everybody that he was the Devil”) ; and even former White House operative Harold Ickes Jr. (the commission filched a copy of his application for civil rights work in Mississippi; under the heading of job history, Ickes, then a senior at Stanford University, wrote, “1957-1959–working on California, Nevada cattle ranches; 1960–jackhammer operator for road-construction company”).

The State Sovereignty Commission thus illustrates the principle that, by trying to know everything, spy agencies often end up learning nothing. Czech President Vaclav Havel has suggested that dissidents should ignore surveillance by secret police–that way, spy agencies accumulate warehouses of often trivial and even erroneous information and, at some point, choke on it all. Take one of the memos on Jesse Morris written by Agent X. I have deleted the name of a civil rights activist mentioned in the memo because the information about him is of a personal nature and, whether true or not, does not merit publication. “Jessie sic Morris has gotten orders from Jim Foreman to proceed to Canton to straighten out another activist ,” wrote Agent X. “It appears that the activist has been drinking a lot lately and playing around with the girls up there in Canton. The activist has not been paying any attention to his duties. Morris is to take care of this problem.” Morris just shook his head and smiled when he read that. The notion that he had been tasked to “straighten out” the activist in question is absurd, he says, because Morris, a senior official in the Council of Federated Organizations, did not work with the activist who had the alleged alcohol and womanizing problems; Morris had no authority over him. Another error–the commission misspells Morris’s first name.

The errors in the commission’s files are about more than mere details, says Rims Barber, a white lawyer who was active in the civil rights movement: “The files reveal … the mindset of the keepers of the files…. Their prism was that anyone white who was involved must be a leader, and therefore we must watch them.” As a result, he says, “they didn’t know what was going on. They missed it. They didn’t know who the leaders were because there are more mentions of me than there are of black activist Henry Kirksey, and that’s just plain wrong. They were looking in the wrong places.”

This is not to say that the commission didn’t manage to do plenty of damage. Quite the contrary. In addition to gathering information, the commission liked to play its own game of naming names. “Our investigations indicate that three of your employees are very active in the naacp and another employee is suspected of similar work,” states a June 22, 1964, letter from the commission director to the personnel manager of the Jackson Tile Company. “It is our policy to advise employers of such activities on the part of their personnel and then leave it to the employers as to whether they will take any steps to have such activity curtailed.” The letter names the employees, who probably did not remain employees much longer. I also came across a letter in the files from the director of the commission to the president of Mississippi Southern University, advising him to blackmail a black youth who wished to break the university’s color barrier–by threatening to brand the student as a homosexual.

And there is information in the files that links the commission to some of the most notorious crimes committed in the civil rights era. In 1964, Agent X provided the commission with the license plate number of a Ford station wagon that belonged to the Congress of Racial Equality (core); the commission routinely forwarded such information to local police officials, who either passed it to members of the Klan or were Klan members themselves. Months later, police pulled over civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman in that core station wagon. The trio were killed that night by members of the Klan. (A federal jury later convicted Bowers, Cecil Price, and five other defendants of depriving Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman of their civil rights; to this day, there have been no murder convictions in the case.) There has been more success in getting a murder conviction in the 1963 slaying of Medgar Evers, shot in the driveway of his home. In 1994, after leaked commission files showed that the commission had screened jurors in an earlier trial, Byron De La Beckwith, a Klan member, was convicted of the Evers murder.

But perhaps the commission’s most painful, and enduring, legacy is the extent to which it has divided the civil rights community against itself–sowing the seeds of suspicion and betrayal.

Morris can still remember the day in 1964 when Bolden was brought into the heart of the movement. There was a meeting at the Masonic Temple, and Bolden, relatively unknown, got into an argument with Charles Evers, who had taken the helm of Mississippi’s naacp chapter after his brother, Medgar, was slain. Charles Evers was not nearly as respected as his late brother, and people at the meeting were impressed that Bolden stood up to him. Bolden was brought back to the office that housed the Council of Federated Organizations, where Morris met him for the first time. Bolden, who had a brown Cadillac, became Morris’s driver, ferrying him across town and across state and sharing the sort of camaraderie of soldiers in the same foxhole. Eventually Bolden became vice president of the Mississippi naacp.

Since coming to believe that Bolden had been informing on him all that time, Morris hasn’t bothered to confront him. “What can I say to him?” Morris asks. “I just feel betrayed…. We were so close that I’m surprised people don’t think I’m a spy. People ask me, ‘Jesse, how couldn’t you know?'” Morris mentions that Bolden is retired now. Jackson is not a big city, so Morris has seen Bolden on occasion but hasn’t said more than hello. “There are some people who would like to take a gun to his head, but nobody is going to do that,” Morris says. “Nobody wants to go to jail for killing the skunk. So, in that sense, he’s home free.”

Bolden doesn’t bother to mount much of a defense. Because few informers have been unmasked, and because there do not appear to be many informers as close to the heart of the movement as Bolden was, his name has become a synonym for betrayal. “I don’t want to discuss this thing because everyone I’ve talked to has distorted what I said,” he told me during a brief phone interview. “People can say what they want; but they’re wrong, and they can go to hell. I don’t want to deal with it.”

Charles Evers nearly exploded when I mentioned Bolden. “He’s a low-down, no- good son of a bitch,” Evers said. “He sucked up to us, and he was deceiving us; he’s nothing but a traitor. I have no respect for him whatsoever. If he dropped dead today it wouldn’t be too soon for me.” Ironically, some people say the same about Evers. Despite his high-profile work during the civil rights era, and despite his slain brother’s martyr status, Evers faces accusations of having been in league with the Sovereignty Commission.

Evers has a long file, more than 1,000 pages. It attests to a double relationship. The commission’s investigators were keeping a close watch on him, listening to his speeches, tracking his movements, and collecting gossip about his girlfriends and his controversial reputation in the black community. The files also contain reports from investigators who met with Evers and made deals with him to defuse boycotts or marches. Was he a collaborator or a negotiator?

A damaging memorandum was sent on March 31, 1967, from Earle Johnston Jr., director of the commission, to Lee Cole, a commission investigator. “It has been reported to this office that on one or two occasions you mentioned to people in your territory, ‘We have Charles Evers in the palm of our hand,'” the memo says. “Whether the report is true or not, I would much prefer that you never make any such statement because it might jeopardize some of our troubleshooting procedures. You may say at any time that we have a communication with Evers, but I would not go any further than that.”

I asked Evers about this. We were in his office at a radio station he manages, and the walls were covered with an unusual assemblage of political photographs from the 1960s and ’70s. There were several pictures of him with Bobby Kennedy–Evers was with Kennedy on the day he was assassinated. Just a few inches away from the Kennedy pictures there’s an autographed shot of Richard Nixon.

Evers holds anti-welfare and anti-abortion views that isolate him from many former allies in the civil rights movement. He thinks his liberal detractors are trying to use the Sovereignty Commission records to smear him. “I was cooperating with the Sovereignty Commission from the point of negotiation,” Evers said. “It wasn’t that I was going to tell on somebody. It was, ‘We’re going to march at eleven o’clock tomorrow, governor, and I want someone there to protect my people.'” He added, “I guess they’re trying to say that I was playing both sides. Well, I’ll play three sides if necessary…. Whatever it took, I would do that. I had enough of my people lynched; I had enough of the mistreatment; I had enough of ’em beaten and denied the right just to go and vote or get a damn drink of water. Whatever I could do on my part, if it meant kissin’ ass, I’d kiss ass.”

“You have to understand race relations, if not from a viewpoint of Welty or Faulkner in fiction, then from sociology,” says the Reverend Edwin King, a leading white civil rights activist in the ’60s who is now a professor at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. “We had an evil system, but it was a functioning society so that people had to have lots of very complex roles and blacks and whites had to have a great deal of communication. Thank God we overthrew that system, but somebody who doesn’t understand it, looking back on it, might misinterpret it.”

King and I were talking about principals of black schools who, as the files reveal, met with commission investigators. Were they self-interested informers, or did they have to deal with the white power structure in order to get books for their segregated schools? And what about Evers? While it’s clear he was no angel–in his autobiography, he admitted to running numbers and being involved in prostitution in his younger years–Evers says he didn’t know the white men he met with were from the commission. He says they introduced themselves as being “from the government.” The lacerating criticism he now faces is reminiscent of the ease with which Eastern Europeans were scarred, belatedly, by contact they had with intelligence agencies. Genuine acts of treachery were abundant. But some cases were murkier. For example, onetime Czech dissident Jan Kavan unwittingly met a secret police operative in the 1970s, and the operative opened a file on him. Once police archives were opened, Kavan faced accusations of being a collaborator. He had to go to court to clear his name; he is now the foreign minister of the Czech Republic.

It is because of problems of this sort that King has opposed releasing the files without privacy guarantees. “We cannot let people be damned because this agency says, ‘Information was received,'” King says. “Their definition of ‘informant’ is anybody who gave information…. These people are always name-dropping, the agents, to get more appropriations from the legislature, to impress the governor. If they can drop the name of a chancellor, a dean, or somebody prominent, it looks like they have contacts. Later, when it says, ‘Information was received from so and so,’ it looks like an informant.”

If privacy rights were trampled 30 years ago by a spy agency’s surveillance, would not those privacy rights be violated a second time by letting anyone walk in off the street and peruse the files? As the case of Charles Evers shows, contacts with a spy agency can be interpreted in a number of ways. And in the emotionally charged atmosphere created by the opening of secret files people are less likely to err on the side of forgiveness.

As if to prove this point, some civil rights veterans have begun to turn their suspicions on Ed King. This is particularly striking since King is a near-legend of the civil rights movement in Mississippi and has broken teeth (from beatings) and a nasty scar on his face (from a car accident he believes was designed to kill him) to attest to his resistance. He is portrayed as a hero in Taylor Branch’s authoritative two-volume history of the civil rights movement. Nonetheless, because of his outspoken opposition to the indiscriminate release of the files and his request to keep his own file sealed, King has come under suspicion. Why, after all, would anyone oppose the release of his own file unless he wanted to prevent the world from finding out he was a snitch?

“Ed doesn’t have a clean record, so that’s why he doesn’t want the records released,” says Henry Kirksey, a prominent civil rights activist in the ’60s. “Ed was one of my favorite people for years and years until I learned a part of what he was doing, but I know enough of what he was doing to know that he was not clean.”

Kirksey admits he has no proof, and he does not insist that King’s file, once opened, would reveal incriminating information. But Kirksey, along with other opponents of King, points out that some files, perhaps a large number, are thought to have been destroyed in the final years of the commission’s life. King’s file may be spotless today, Kirksey suggests, but it may not have been spotless at an earlier time. This sort of suspicion is one of the phantom-like symptoms of post-authoritarian whiplash; mistrust thrives even in the absence of evidence. Once you are convinced someone like R.L. Bolden may have been a traitor, how can you be sure about anyone else?

Of course, not everyone who favors opening up the files is a conspiracy theorist. David Ingebretsen is executive director of the Mississippi aclu and a key proponent of releasing the files. His involvement in privacy litigation over those documents that are still under seal means he has been able to review them. I asked Ingebretsen whether he thinks King is trying to hide something. “There’s nothing for him to cover up,” Ingebretsen answered. “Ed is a true civil rights hero. I have to accept his argument that he’s concerned about people’s privacy rights. I just think he’s wrong.”

The argument from Ingebretsen and others is that the public has a right to know what the Sovereignty Commission was doing, and that, although some privacy rights may be invaded by opening the files, the invasion is rather mild and trumped by the greater good of exposing the commission’s workings. Many of the people who were under surveillance are dead. Much of the information is innocuous: who attended which meetings; who said what. There are only a small number of cases containing deeply personal information (which may or may not be accurate), and, hopefully, the press will be responsible enough to not publicize unproven or irrelevant gossip.

Ultimately, Ingebretsen’s argument won the day–all but 7,700 pages of files have been released, and a federal court is expected to rule soon on whether the final batch should be opened. Before the release last March, the court ordered the state to invite people who thought there might be files on them to request access before the release, and, if they wished, to request that either the files not be released or the names be deleted (informers were excluded from this offer). But, with 87,000 names in the files, it was virtually impossible to notify all the people, or even a substantial number, because their addresses were unknown. The state ran a few ads in local and national papers, but hardly anyone saw them, and only 42 people asked for their files to be protected. Those requests are now under review by a federal judge, William Barbour Jr.

Ingebretsen admits that many people whose files are now in the public domain received no warning. I mentioned to him that no country in the former Soviet bloc has undergone such a full release–in Germany, which has gone furthest down the road of openness, a person can view only his or her own Stasi file. Ingebretsen nodded and recalled that a Czech official who was visiting Mississippi stopped by his office recently and heard about the plan for opening the secret files to all comers. As Ingebretsen recalls, “He was surprised.”

The end came quietly for the Sovereignty Commission. By the early ’70s, with the battle against integration long lost, and the newer battle against radicalism on college campuses stirring little interest in the legislature, the financial tap was turned off. According to the minutes of the commission’s final meeting on June 22, 1973, “Expressions of appreciation were made by members of the Commission to Director W. Webb Burke and the staff personnel for their faithful and efficient service of inestimable value rendered to the State Sovereignty Commission and to the State of Mississippi. “

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.