Mississippi's Sovereignty Commission Files May Never Reveal Where All the Bodies Were Buried

Affiliate: ACLU of Mississippi
March 14, 1999 12:00 am

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JACKSON, MI — With the approach of the one-year anniversary of the release of secret files of Mississippi’s now-defunct segregation spy agency, questions of the accuracy of a final batch of 7,200 pages are being raised as a federal judge considers opening them to the public.

According to Associated Press, reporters converged from all over the country last year for a chance to examine boxes of reports and yellowed newspaper clippings collected by the once-feared Sovereignty Commission. But their enthusiasm quickly fizzled with the realization someone had gotten there first – the agency’s censors.

Speculation had risen that the files might contain secrets of Ku Klux Klan killings or names of civil rights figures thought to have been on the commission’s payroll, said the AP.

While some documents raised eyebrows — in 1964, the watchdog agency dispatched one of its “spies” to Mississippi to sketch a map of the muddy site where the bodies of three murdered civil rights workers were found – there were no major revelations.

In a case that spanned 21 years, the American Civil Liberties Union sued for release of the files after the Commission disbanded in 1977 and promptly sealed the documents.

The Sovereignty Commission was created in 1956 to “protect the sovereignty of the state of Mississippi and her sister states” from federal interference. In practice, it worked to preserve segregation, said the AP. In secret, the commission harassed and spied on activists, branding many of them racial agitators and communist infiltrators.

David Ingebretsen, executive director of the ACLU-Mississippi, told the newswire that he “really regretted it took so long because many of the people are dead and they can’t seek justice for what was done to them.”

Veteran Mississippi journalist Bill Minor, himself a target of commission spying, told the AP that many of the damaging files likely were destroyed.

“To a real extent, the damage this group did will really never be known,” Minor told the AP. “To fully understand what the Sovereignty Commission did, you had to live through the times.”

Apparently nothing was too innocent or too obvious to escape commission scrutiny, said the AP. The license tag numbers of cars parked outside NAACP meetings were written down. Even after the bodies of civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney were unearthed in Neshoba County, the commission sent a representative to sketch a crude map of where the bodies had been buried.

The AP said that the Commission also kept an eye on celebrities and entertainers, including Elvis Presley, B.B. King, James Brown, the Rolling Stones, Sammy Davis Jr. and Harry Belafonte.

Source: The Associated Press, March 14, 1999

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