dawn porter*There was a time in America when a god-awful man named Jim Crow reigned. J.C. wasn’t really flesh and blood, of course, except in the evil blood coursing through racists in states such as Georgia, Texas and the great state of Mississippi.

A new documentary, “Spies of Mississippi,” on PBS Monday, February 10, (10 p.m. ET) directed by Dawn Porter (pictured), reveals that in the 1950s and 60’s the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, a secret agency, was responsible for despicable acts against African Americans or Negroes as they were called then.

“I think we all have the picture of individual racism – what it’s like when one person or one group has a set of biases based on skin color or ethnicity or sexual orientation. But what took it to another level is the Sovereignty Commission was an example of institutional racism,” says Porter, who helmed of this gripping Independent Lens documentary.

The Commission, a board of 12, was created in 1956 by an act of the Mississippi Legislature two years after the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling Brown versus the Board of Education that led to the desegregation of public schools. Its main mission was to topple integration.

Commissioners seemingly went about their mission by any means necessary armed with broad powers to, among other things, make arrests, keep secret files and investigate individuals and organizations.

“It was one of the biggest domestic spy operations in America’s history,” Porter declared.
She contends the commissioners may have had a hand in or at the very least withheld critical information about a turning point in civil rights history – namely the murder of civil rights workers James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael “Mickey” Schwerner.
The three young men were killed in 1964 by White supremacists when volunteering during the “Freedom Summer” campaign registering African Americans to vote.
Some believe it was their deaths that caused the demise of the commission.

She explains how the Commission could be construed to be complicit in withholding evidence regarding their disappearance, “Particularly “Mickey” Schwerner. They had been tracking him for a long time. They knew as a result of their spy operation – they knew the license plate of the car he was driving. They knew they were on their way to investigate the church burning. So they knew exactly where they were going to be and when.”

Did commissioners know that the bodies of those young activists were buried in an earthen dam – while this massive search, included members of the FBI, was going on? Nobody knows for certain but the files they left behind certainly make one suspicious.
And some of the people who were doing the spying is fascinating. It was discovered in the records that Blacks were enlisted by White supremacists to spy on other Blacks. One person, Porter says, was a member of the NAACP.

“These records were provided by a number of spies but one of them was a man named Robert Bolden who was Agent X. He was an African American who went undercover for the White supremacists and spied for them.”

Porter says she was touched personally by this film and recalled something said to her by Margaret Black. She asked Black why, at the age of 17, she risked her life in Mississippi for the civil rights cause? Porter says Black’s answer was moving, “We didn’t want to live any other way.”

Jackson Clarion-Ledger reporter Jerry Mitchell in 1989 was able to get over 2400 pages of Commission records. The files were completely opened in 1998.

Independent Lens is an Emmy® Award-winning weekly series airing on PBS.
Find more information about “Spies of Mississippi” at http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/spies-of-mississippi/.

Reach Tené Croom at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @TcTene.

Listen to Tene’ Croom’s interview with Dawn Porter: