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History: Mississippi Sovereignty Commission Spied On Citizens And Civil Rights Activists

Mississippi State flag It was arguably the largest government spy program on U.S. citizens prior to September 11, 2001. And, you probably have not heard about it.

The documentary "Spies of Mississippi" describes the structure, goals, and activities of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission (MSSC) when it spied during the 1950s and 1960s upon more than 87,000 American citizens, mostly civil rights (voting) rights activists, to maintain a White-supremacist controlled government in the state:

"A no-nonsense group called the  Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission has quietly created a secret, state-funded spy agency answering directly to the Governor.  The Commission has infiltrated the civil rights coalition, eavesdropping on its most private meetings, and pilfering its most sensitive documents. The spies’ method of obtaining such sensitive information can be traced to an even more explosive secret known only to a handful of state officials that oversee the Commission and its anti-civil rights spy apparatus..."

Freedom Summer was a campaign during the summer of 1964 to register African-American voters in southern states. Campaign participants included mostly white college students from northern states working with African-American residents in several southern states to register voters. The MSSC, formed, funded, and controlled by the Mississippi state government, was central to using informants and paid investigators to identify, monitor, and track activists, who were often beaten and murdered. The murders received national and worldwide attention in 1963 with the murder of Medgar Evers, the head of the Mississippi NAACP, and in 1964 when three Freedom Summer students went missing. The students' bodies were later found buried underneath a 14-foot earthen dam.

Besides watching the documentary, you can learn more online.The Mississippi Department of Archives And History contains information and documents that describe the MSSC:

"... was created by an act of the Mississippi legislature on March 29, 1956. The agency was established in the wake of the May 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling. Like other states below the Mason-Dixon Line, Mississippi responded to Brown with legislation to shore up the walls of racial separation. The act creating the Commission provided the agency with broad powers. The Commission's objective was to "do and perform any and all acts deemed necessary and proper to protect the sovereignty of the state of Mississippi, and her sister states... the Commission was granted extensive investigative powers. The governor was appointed ex-officio chairman of the Commission. Other ex-officio members were the president of the Senate, who was vice-chairman of the Commission; the attorney general; and the speaker of the House of Representatives. In addition, the Commission comprised the following members: two members from the Senate, appointed by the president of the Senate; and three members from the House of Representatives, appointed by the speaker. The governor, attorney general and legislators served on the Commission during their tenures in office..."

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) wrote that the documentary:

"... is a grim reminder of the depths that Mississippi authorities plumbed in their efforts to subvert the civil rights movement... The film draws on a trove of Commission records, which are available and searchable online thanks to a 1994 court order in a lawsuit brought by the ACLU of Mississippi... within a few years it had mushroomed into a full-scale spy agency, employing a network of investigators and agents who surveilled civil rights activists, tapped their phones, monitored their meetings, stole sensitive documents, and undermined voter rights efforts. The Commission was ruthless, waging an all-out war against change. Perhaps most painfully, it assembled a cadre of African American informants.. It destroyed the lives of people like Clyde Kennard, a Black Korean War veteran who attempted to enroll at what was then Mississippi Southern College. The Commission orchestrated the planting of evidence used to convict Mr. Kennard of stealing chicken feed. He served seven years in prison. Commission agents also funneled information to local law enforcement (which was rife with KKK members) about student activists who were descending on Mississippi for the "Freedom Summer" of 1964... films such as "Spies of Mississippi" serve two vital purposes: remembrance and reminder. They advance the long project of accounting for America's history of racial subjugation, in brutal detail. They also remind us, in the words of Mississippi Congressman Bennie Thompson, of the "need to keep us safe from terrorists, but also from ourselves." "

The MSSC highlights the consequences when a government spies upon its citizens without notice, consent, transparency, and accountability; and fails to comply with the U.S. Constitution. The documentary is currently being shown on Public Broadcasting Stations (PBS). The film and the book are available online for purchase and download. Watch the trailer:


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