“Our government is not all knowing and all powerful,” says Congressman Bennie Thompson of Mississippi. He knows this from experience, including his service as the ranking member of the Committee on Homeland Security since 2011. The government, he adds, must work to “keep American citizens safe both from the known and unknown, from terrorists, but also from ourselves.”
This idea, that a threat might be posed to US citizens by US citizens, is premised on Thompson’s other experience, as a young black man in Mississippi during the ‘50s and ‘60s. Then, of course, not everyone around him considered Thompson a citizen, not fully. Then, of course, some of his fellows thought he should not have the right to vote, to eat at the same lunch counters, drink at the same water fountains or attend the same schools as his white counterparts.
As Thompson looks back on that era now for the documentary Spies of Mississippi, his recollections are frequently chilling, and not only because the government of Mississippi once posed an overt and known threat to some of its citizens. What he says is alarming as well because today, the government still poses threats, in the applications of legislation ranging from the War on Drugs to Show Your Papers to Stand Your Ground.
While the differences between then and now are surely stark, similarities are also striking, beginning with the expectation that some citizens receive different treatment under the law than others. As Bennie Thompson’s assessment suggests, Spies of Mississippi, airing this month as part of PBS’ Independent Lens and available online until 12 March, looks back on the time when the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission did its work, as a time that might be understood as both past and prologue. The agency, in place from 1956 to 1977, at first resembled “a white Chamber of Commerce,” says former Mississippi governor William Winter (1980 to 1984), but soon enough revealed its interest in preserving Jim Crow laws and resisting “federal encroachment” on state sovereignty.
Vowing to fight federally mandated school desegregation per Brown v Board of Education and then voting rights, the Commission devised multiple methods to undermine activities perceived as dangerous. These activities were broadly understood, as Lawrence Guyot recalls, “If you registered to vote, you immediately became an enemy of the state. If you rented form a white person, you were kicked out. If you worked for a white person, you were fired.” And yet, he says, “We got thousands of people to take on an entire state that was committed to an apartheid system that would make South Africa blush.”
One form of the state’s commitment, and the focus of Dawn Porter’s film, was the use of spies sent into groups planning to help citizens register to vote. As the film reveals, some of these spies were black, paid by the agency to inform on group members to state police agencies. As writer Rick Bowers says, “It was a confusing time,” meaning that moral choices and self-preservation sometimes collided. Guyot suggests that some of these spies were seeking to protect themselves and their families, believing they were joining up with the inevitably “winning side,” that the government wouldn’t be doing “illegal things.” Winter adds that it was “a time of almost unbelievable thought control… that led to some of the most unfortunate events in the history of the civil rights movement.”
Specifically, the Sovereignty Commission spies provided information about plans concerning Martin Luther King, Jr. coming to Mississippi or efforts during Freedom Summer in 1964. Some of that information was incorrect, as the groups being spied on managed their own sorts of counter-intelligence. Still, the spies did damage, in particular, leading to the 1964 arrests and murders of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman.
Today, it’s difficult to find defenders of such brazen violence committed by government representatives, in large part because of work by citizens like the Clarion-Ledger‘s Jerry Mitchell. The Sovereignty Commission records were originally sealed until 2027; during the ‘80s, Mitchell worked doggedly to gain access to files that revealed, among other things, the assassin of Medgar Evers.
The film offers another mode of investigation, in an interview with Sovereignty Commission member Horace Harned, Jr., who maintains that they were only “trying to keep up with the invasion from the North.” The film juxtaposes his understanding of the Commission’s effectiveness—“We kept ‘em in line, we locked up a lot of ‘em put ‘em in jail”—with archival footage of a young woman describing her own commitment to the cause. “I don’t mind coming to jail,” she says, “I don’t mind suffering at all. I want equal rights.”
Cut back to Harned, who insists that his people were the ones under fire: “We were not intimidated and I think that’s important. If you get intimidated, you can’t control anything.”
His declaration, made from the comfort of his armchair, constitutes a brief but startling moment in Spies of Mississippi. It’s a moment that speaks to ongoing self-justifications for racism in today’s America. That the Sovereignty Commission, and by extension, the government that funded and directed it, couldn’t see the impossibility of its aims speaks to a foundation of fears and delusions, a foundation still in place. If racism has lessened it’s partly because “Our government is not all knowing and all powerful,” as Thompson says. But some of its members still seem to think they are.