Mississippi Spies Sought To Uphold Segregation

One aspect of the Civil Rights movement that has been largely unknown by many is the role of Mississippi's Sovereignty Commission, a state funded commission designed to uphold segregation in the state. The operation, which launched in 1956, was led by the governor, and was staffed by a network of informants — some of whom were white and some black. As part of our series of Black History Month conversations, host Michel Martin speaks with Rick Bowers, author of Spies of Mississippi: The True Story of the Spy of the Network that Tried to Destroy the Civil Rights Movement.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Im Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We have another of the conversations weve been having for Black History Month. While much has been documented about the history of African-Americans in the life of this nation, much hidden history is now being brought to light. And it is those new aspects of black history that weve been pursuing this month.

Here to share a piece of this newly discovered history is Rick Bowers. Hes author of Spies of Mississippi. Thats the story of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, which carried out state-run espionage during the height if the civil rights movement. Its mission was to maintain segregation. And Rick Bowers is here with us to tell us more. Thank you for joining us.

Mr. RICK BOWERS (Author, Spies of Mississippi: The True Story of the Spy of the Network that Tried to Destroy the Civil Rights Movement): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: I want to start with a question Ive been asking just about all of the writers and scholars that weve been speaking with this month which is: How did you get interested in this topic?

Mr. BOWERS: Well, I had a great opportunity a couple of years ago, where I had a seven or eight week hiatus from work. And coming from a journalistic background, I always wanted to write a book. So, I did some research and I found this article that talked about the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission. And it said it was a spy organization created by the state, funded by the taxpayers, answered directly to the governor and led a two-decade campaign against the civil rights movement. And no one had heard of this, so I thought there is a good topic.

MARTIN: And you write that this was the most extensive state-run espionage effort...

Mr. BOWERS: Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...known to have existed in the United States, and not so long ago. This started in - when 1956.

Mr. BOWERS: 1956. And amazing thing about the Sovereignty Commission - there are many amazing things about it - but they kept their records and theres a 146,000 pages of records.

MARTIN: So, tell us about the people who led this commission. It was started by?

Mr. BOWERS: Governor J.P. Coleman in 1956.

MARTIN: This was two years after the Brown v. Board of Ed...

Mr. BOWERS: Yes, its a direct response.

MARTIN: A Supreme Court case.

Mr. BOWERS: Direct response to Brown versus Board of Education. J.P. Coleman was actually, what they called in Mississippi at the time, a moderate. He was very uncomfortable with the rabid white supremacists. He was was also uncomfortable with the NAACP. And what he would say is I want peace and quiet when it comes to race. But he was under tremendous pressure to sign this bill to create a state agency that would be dedicated to preserving segregation. And although we had doubts about it, he signed the bill.

MARTIN: So, he was pro-segregation. He just wasnt in favor of violence, he just wanted it done politely and legally, you know, as were...

Mr. BOWERS: Yeah.

MARTIN: So what was this commission supposed to do? How did they they kept all these records, but what were they doing?

Mr. BOWERS: Well, at first, it began as a propaganda outlet. So this was a way for the state of Mississippi to get its message out. And their basic line was that segregation is actually preferred by both blacks and whites in Mississippi and its critical to maintaining the peace.

So they would create these propaganda films, which would depict that point of view. They would have a speaking tour where people would go throughout Mississippi and actually, within time, throughout the country basically defending segregation.

MARTIN: Now, Ive seen some of these films. Black people do appear in these films.

Mr. BOWERS: Yeah.

MARTIN: Did you find out the circumstances by which they did? Did they believe it or did they feel they had to?

Mr. BOWERS: Well, a little bit of both. I think that once the propaganda unit was in place, they began forming a spy network. And they would hire agents, often former FBI agents, and these people would keep an eye open for anyone advocating for integration.

Before long, they realized that in order for us to truly get inside the NAACP, we need black collaborators. So they launched an all-out campaign to find people within the black community who would help them keep an eye on these organizations.

MARTIN: And do they pay them? How did they ensure their cooperation?

Mr. BOWERS: They paid them. They paid them very well. But there were people who would do it because they felt that they would benefit by the preservation of segregation. One of their agents was a school superintendent from the Mississippi River Delta who did not want the black school system to go away because he knew that would be the end of his job. And he not only volunteered to be a spy, he actually proposed that the state fund an alternative organization to the NAACP, which black people could join to oppose integration.

MARTIN: What about some of the other spies whom you (unintelligible)?

Mr. BOWERS: Another gentleman was a very high ranking preacher, head of the Baptist Convention which had 387,000 members. He was very uneasy with the NAACPs push for immediate school integration.

MARTIN: What was his name?

Mr. BOWERS: His name was H.H. Humes, and he was a very effective spy. He actually hired a stenographer to go to NAACP meetings with him to take down the proceedings word for word.

MARTIN: Did people within these organizations know they were being spied upon? Did they ever figure it out?

Mr. BOWERS: They did figure it out eventually. In fact, in this particular case of Reverend Humes, the Associated Press discovered a check paid to him from the State Sovereignty Commission. And they wrote an article saying that both he and a prominent black journalist were receiving payments from an agency dedicated to the preservation of segregation.

And the NAACP jumped all over that. It became a big topic of debate in the black churches. And at that point, as far as the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission went, the cat was out of the bag.

MARTIN: Well, were African-Americans the only spies? I mean...

Mr. BOWERS: No, no.

MARTIN: ...obviously they were a big (unintelligible).

Mr. BOWERS: They had a their agency was actually white investigators. They had a huge network of white informants. So, people throughout the state who were pro-segregation, if they felt someone in their midst was an NAACP member, they would inform the Sovereignty Commission.

MARTIN: And what would happen to these people once they were tagged as belonging to these groups or being sympathetic to civil rights?

Mr. BOWERS: The first thing that would happen is your name would go on a watch list. Once you are on the watch list, it was likely you would be visited by a state agent or an informant would keep a close watch on you for the Sovereignty Commission.

MARTIN: Did it affect peoples interpersonal relations in the way that the spy networks in the former communist countries did in East Germany, for example? East Germany being the best known example of how extensive the spy networks were, and you had husbands and wives spying on each other. You had children being expected to inform on their parents. I mean, relationships were destroyed.

Mr. BOWERS: It was destructive. I spoke to one woman who was an activist back in the 60s as a teenage girl. Unbeknownst to her, her uncle was an informant for the Sovereignty Commission. He actually tape recorded meetings that she took part in and turned them over to the state. Now, when the records were finally released, she realized this. And she confronted the other side of the family and they denied it. And to this day, its a bitter situation.

So, in Mississippi, you throw a stone and you hit someone who was involved with the Sovereignty Commission, either as a target or as a collaborator.

MARTIN: If youre just joining us, youre listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Im Michel Martin. Im speaking with Rick Bowers. Hes the author of a new book that describes the spy network instituted by the leadership of the State of Mississippi during the height of the civil rights movement, specifically intended to undermine the civil rights movement.

What is the most egregious thing in your view about the Sovereignty Commission? I mean, clearly the idea of spying on people because youre abridging their right to organize, to communicate with each other, to peacefully press their government for their justice claims is being abridged by this effort. Its being paid for by the taxpayers, so there is that aspect of it. But do they engage in other abuses?

Mr. BOWERS: If you rented from a white person and you are on the list, you are likely to be evicted. If you had a job and you are on the list, you are likely to lose that job. So, the Sovereignty Commission would enter into those situations just as a matter of course. It was not the Ku Klux Klan, however. It did not engage in violent attacks as far as the records show. But I will say this, it enabled violence.

By 1964, the Sovereignty Commission was more than a propaganda outlet, it was more than a spy network, it was a coordinator of the white power structure in Mississippi. It provided information to sheriffs departments across the state. And at that time, it was bracing for this influx of students from the North.

And one of the most shocking things I saw was one of its black agents got a job within the office that was coordinating this influx and he Xeroxed the application forms of the students who were coming down from the North and he provided the commission with their names, their descriptions, their license numbers. That information was then taken by the commission and dispersed to sheriff departments across the state. The sheriff departments had been infiltrated by the Ku Klux Klan.

So, when the three civil rights workers came down from Ohio, down for Philadelphia and Mississippi, their names were on the watch list. And the Sovereignty Commission had enabled that, but they had also stirred up this incredible anxiety that created this atmosphere of extreme tension. And they had also turned a blind eye to the organization of the Ku Klux Klan.

MARTIN: Rick, in the course of reporting your book, you were able to speak to people who were on the Sovereignty Commission, and there were some surviving, at least one surviving African-American who was an agent for them. So, first I want to ask you, one of the people one of the whites who was on the Sovereignty Commission, what did he say?

Mr. BOWERS: He said that he had been elected to the state legislature to preserve segregation, that thats what his voters wanted. Of course, when you point out that while the blacks couldnt vote, it doesnt seem to figure into their logic. But in any rate, he defended it in that way. He said he was actually happy to have hired spies and to put a number of those, quote, unquote, communists in jail.

MARTIN: What does he feel now? Do you know?

Mr. BOWERS: Well, we asked a very interesting question. After this long explanation, I said the world has changed dramatically. We now have a black president. Schools are integrated. Black people line up to vote on Election Day just like white people. Which way was better, the old way or the new way? And he thought for a moment and said the new way is better. So, maybe thats what were working for, but at least that was a positive sign.

MARTIN: Why did he talk to you?

Mr. BOWERS: I think that part of him does feel that they were doing the right thing, and he wanted to explain that. And I think part of him also wanted to moderate the position he had taken in the past. Because in the old days, he was an outright white supremacist, unapologetic, a very frightening individual. He didnt come across that way this time. He was talking from a purely historic point of view, and I thought that last question was really telling.

MARTIN: What about the black agent whom you identified. Who was he, by the way, and what was his motivation? What did he say when you ask him about what his role in this was?

Mr. BOWERS: When the Sovereignty Commission files were opened in 1998, a number of the activists got together and they said, okay, who was at all these meetings that ended up in these files? And theres a whole set of files that are marked with an X. And those came actually from a string of black agents who work for a detective agency in Jackson, Mississippi. And that detective agency had been hired by the Sovereignty Commission to get inside the civil rights movement.

So, this individual has denied being an agent of the Sovereignty Commission. But when I asked him, did you work for the Day Detective Agency? Yes. Did you cover civil rights meetings for the Day Detective Agency? Yes. Did you drive from Jackson, Mississippi to Oxford, Ohio with one of the activists to take part in the training session for Freedom Summer? Yes. All those things are in the Sovereignty Commission file.

So, he felt he was working for the detective agency, but all his information was going to the Sovereignty Commission.

MARTIN: Is he the only black informant you were able to connect with to ask why you did this? Or Im wondering how you were able to glean what their motivations were.

Mr. BOWERS: He was the only one and he is almost a symbol of the black infiltration because the others just kind of disappeared. He is a gentleman who grew up in a small town in Mississippi. By all rights, he should have been picking cotton his entire life, and he explained to me that he found a way out. He said, you know, one thing I learned growing up from my father was the dos and donts of working with the white man. And Ive known that my whole life.

MARTIN: Do you have any sense of how he feels about the work that he did?

Mr. BOWERS: He feels very remorseful about being shunned by the black community. He feels that thats been unfair and that he would like to reconnect with those people. Thats not going to happen.

MARTIN: Why do you think that this history is not better known?

Mr. BOWERS: I think that the civil rights movement was a very difficult period for many people. I think the hard cases are known, the background remains largely unknown, and its not just the Sovereignty Commission, its many aspects of the civil rights movement. But some very interesting pieces of this history are what happened in the background, especially with the little people who did amazing things to try to bring justice about.

MARTIN: One of the things I was curious about is I wonder is it in part not better known because its embarrassing for black people to realize that there were those among them, particularly people who were of stature, who participated in this. Do you think thats part of it?

Mr. BOWERS: I think thats part of it. I think thats a hard story to get out there, but I think people are now ready for that. And that happens in all these cases. In the case in Mississippi, there were some people who did it for money. There were some people who did it to protect their jobs. There were some people who did it to enhance their position with the state. And there are some people in the files who appeared to have done it, but may have been misleading the Sovereignty Commission in providing, you know, false information. So, its very hard to say. And it was not widespread. These folks were a tiny minority that were helping the segregation of state.

MARTIN: What would you like people to take away from your story from the work that youve done?

Mr. BOWERS: I would like them to take away more of a sense of reality as to what happened in that era. It was not a case of black people being denied their rights. A great man named Martin Luther King came along. Unfortunately, he was killed but things got better. It was not that. It was thousands of little people standing up against a huge power structure that more resembled South Africa than the United States of America putting their lives on the line, in some cases losing their lives, to make that change and that the residue of that remains with us.

MARTIN: Rick Bowers is the author of Spies of Mississippi: The True Story of the Spy Network that Tried to Destroy the Civil Rights Movement. He was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studio. Thank you so much for contributing to our Black History Month series.

Mr. BOWERS: Thank you very much.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: And thats our program for today. Im Michel Martin and youve been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Lets talk more tomorrow.

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