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On this day in 1998

March 12, 1998

Millsaps College students protest the death of Jackson State University student and civil rights worker Benjamin Brown, who was killed by police at a protest. Photo shot by the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission with numbers used to identify individual students. Credit: Courtesy of Mississippi Department of Archives and History

Thirty-two years after Mississippi created a segregationist spy agency, the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, its long secret records were finally opened to the public. 

State lawmakers created the agency in 1956 in the wake of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling that ordered desegregation in public schools and gave the agency broad powers to fight federal “encroachment.” 

Under the direction of Gov. Ross Barnett, the commission promoted propaganda, sending white and Black speakers up North to talk about how wonderful segregation was. The commission also hired informants, infiltrated civil rights groups, smeared civil rights workers and got them fired from their jobs. 

The commission collected spy files on more than 10,000 people, including such people as Elvis Presley. In addition, the commission sent more than $193,000 of taxpayers’ money to the white Citizens’ Council — a practice that drew criticism from Mississippi NAACP leader Medgar Evers. 

In spring 1964, the commission spied on two young white civil rights workers, Mickey and Rita Schwerner, after they began to work in the movement in Meridian, Mississippi. The commission shared its spy report with the local police, which included the brother of Klansman Alton Wayne Roberts, who was involved in killing three civil rights workers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. 

In 1973, then Gov. Bill Waller vetoed the Mississippi Legislature’s appropriation to the commission, effectively shutting it down. In 1977, the Legislature abolished the agency and sealed the files for 50 years, but a lawsuit by the ACLU succeeded in opening those files.

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