Lyndon B. Johnson’s infamous quote, “There’s America, there’s the South, and then there’s Mississippi,” is illustrated in all its maliciousness in the new documentary, Spies of Mississippi. The film examines the covert, state-sponsored campaign to annihilate the Civil Rights Movement of the 50’s & 60’s. With the assistance of former FBI agents and Black citizens (including influential community leaders) the Mississippi state government’s vile, futile efforts are brought to light.
The Mississippi Sovereignty Commission was established out of ignorance and fear – a racist knee-jerk reaction to the Brown v. Board of Education, ruling. “That case was seen by Mississippi as almost a declaration of war. It was viewed as an attack on Mississippi’s sovereignty and set into motion a vast response from the state. One of the things they did was establish this spy agency. And I think what’s so remarkable about this is it was a spy agency hidden in plain sight. There was an allocation of taxpayer dollars, $250,000, which in 1950s money is serious money. There’s an office that reports to the governor of Mississippi. And one of the things they did was hire spies,” director Dawn Porter told Democracy Now.
Blacks and Whites united, on the heinous side of history, as the documentary recounts that African-American leaders and ordinary “activists” were recruited by the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission to spy on their colleagues, communities, & congregations, DN reports. Apparently, the hateful agency generated more than 160,000 pages of reports, many of which were shared with local police departments brimming with Klan members. The commission was sweeping, involving countless state officials from the local to highest levels of office. The film exposes many of the Sovereignty Commission’s cruel, and illegal undertakings, such as their integral part in the 1964 deaths of the Freedom Summer activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner in 1964.
The Mississippi Sovereignty Commission’s spying efforts violated innocent African Americans with abandon. “[They] spied on Medgar Evers and later tried to help basically acquit the killer in that case,” Jerry Mitchell told Democracy Now. The investigative journalist for the Jackson Clarion-Ledger won the release of more than 2,400 pages of commission records in 1989 and used those to reopen many cold cases from the civil rights era. His work helped lead to the 1994 conviction of the killer of Mississippi NAACP leader Medgar Evers and paved the way for 23 more convictions, DN reports.
The film includes another victim of Mississippi’s initiative: A young man named Clyde Kennard. His crime? Applying to the University of Southern Mississippi. Clyde Kennard is described as a Korean War veteran and upstanding citizen. He was an ambitious family man with a good heart who had previously received higher education ‘up North.’ In an attempt to continue his education while assisting his ailing mother on her chicken farm, Kennard returned home and applied to the Southern University. His application was expedited to the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission and their effort to keep him out of the all-white school took flight. After a thorough surveillance & background check proved Kennard was a decent, law-abiding citizen, the “law” saw fit to paint him as a criminal. The Commission-affiliated police planted around 20 dollars worth of chickenfeed on their family farm, and he was promptly arrested and jailed for seven years. The film reveals that Clyde Kennard was sentenced to Parchman Penitentiary (whose rep was on par with modern-day San Quentin) and was released only a short time before he died of terminal cancer.
Director Dawn Porter credits African American participation in Mississippi’s vast, sinister scheme as one of most compelling elements of the documentary. In the words of Rick Bowers, author of the book, Spies of Mississippi: “Any time there’s a great freedom movement, there are people who end up on both sides. And if we could transport ourselves back to Mississippi at that time, it was a confusing time. There were many shades of opinion on all the issues related to civil rights.” It wasn’t just ‘black & white’ for some African Americans during that era – and the Sovereignty Commission did their damndest to exploit those fear-based shades of gray. “We had a lot of people who felt that there was no way that the civil rights movement could possibly win, so why not get on the winning side early? And others who said, ‘Well, the government asked me to do it, therefore it has to be legal. The government doesn’t do illegal things, does it?’” said long time Civil Rights activist Lawrence Guyot.
The film uncovers unfortunate pawns in the commission’s game: Black spies who provided the agency with enough information to thwart social progress and destroy lives. R.L. Bolden, the former vice president of the Mississippi NAACP—was revealed to be one of the moles who managed to infiltrate the civil rights movement at the highest levels.
Sadly, some Blacks offered their services in return for cold hard cash, like one individual named B.L. Bell. Even a man of cloth, the Reverend H.H. Hume, used his role as spiritual leader to assist the Sovereignty Commission. The film discusses how he sold-out his massive congregation and radio audience for financial gain.