The Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission (Commission) 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 . . ." from perceived "encroachment thereon by the Federal Government or any branch, department or agency thereof." To exercise this loosely defined objective, 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 three members appointed by the governor served for the duration of his term.1 The agency itself was small, consisting of a director, public relations director, clerical staff and a handful of investigators.
The Commission's activities were shaped by the preference of the governor and skills of its staff. J.P. Coleman favored a low-key approach, and the Commission handled matters "quietly and effectively" during his term. The Commission compared itself to the FBI and the armed services intelligence agencies, "during times of war seeking out intelligence information about the enemy and what the enemy proposes to do."2 Coleman used the Commission to "dampen as far as possible racial conflict and violence . . . ." 3 He countered criticism that the agency was inactive, asserting that people "would be amazed if they knew the work the commission has in fact done." He continued, "if the things we have done and our quiet methods of doing it ever get into the newspapers, then our enemies will be fully ALERTED [emphasis his] and the usefulness of the Sovereignty Commission will likewise be at an end."4 In contrast, Ross Barnett had no patience for the muted methods of the Commission. He envisioned an overt and expanded role for the agency, and under his direction, the Commission initiated a Speakers Bureau to travel the nation presenting the Mississippi perspective. The Commission also sponsored a film entitled "Message from Mississippi," which portrayed segregation in glowing terms. Following the integration debacle at the University of Mississippi, the Commission also assisted with the printing and distribution of the Mississippi General Legislative Investigating Committee's report on the incident, as well as sponsoring and distributing a movie on the subject entitled "Oxford USA."5
Commission Investigator A. H. Hopkins investigates activities on the Tougaloo Campus June 4, 1963. SCR ID # 3-74-1-19-3-1-1
Under Barnett the investigation team was also expanded. The Commission investigated individuals and organizations that challenged the racial status quo. Commission investigators toured the state and compiled reports on civil rights activities in the counties. They also responded to specific requests from local state officials and members of the public. In addition to staff investigators, the Commission also relied heavily upon informants, a practice begun under Coleman that continued throughout the agency's existence. Payment to informants varied from a few dollars to cover expenses to regular monthly sums of $500. In addition, the Commission employed private detectives, who often acted as intermediaries with informants.6
Barnett's expanded role for the Commission also included funding for the Citizens' Councils. In 1960 the Commission voted a grant for $20,000 to the "Council Forum." From this point until December 1964, the Commission documented monthly grants to the Citizens' Council amounting to a total of $193,500.7 The Commission also participated in the national campaign to prevent the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, establishing and providing funds for the Coordinating Committee for Fundamental American Freedoms.8 In addition, the agency donated small amounts to African-American individuals and organizations sympathetic to segregation. In 1965, the Commission developed and promoted the Mississippi Negro Citizenship Association. Through this organization the Commission "launched a quiet campaign to encourage qualified Negroes to make applications to vote," hoping to outmaneuver the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) by attracting those they termed the "thinking Negroes of Mississippi."9
The courtship of African-American conservatives was consistent with Governor Paul B. Johnson's approach to the integration issue. Mississippi had to appear to be law abiding and in compliance with federal regulations. Image was vital to this scheme, and Erle Johnston and the Commission worked with other state agencies to create Mississippi's new identity. Johnston also took measures to clean up the Commission, instructing removal of all "incriminating" reports, especially those that indicated the Commission helped county registrars stop African-Americans from registering to vote.10 Johnston now described the investigative work of the Commission as "preventative medicine" to avoid "bad situations," and he asserted that the Commission was "not a super snooping agency trying to crack down on any Negro who raises his hand."11 Investigators continued to track individuals and groups who challenged racial segregation, although the subjects of investigations were referred to now by the more generic anti-communist term "subversives" rather than the earlier brand "race agitators." The Commission also continued its advisory function, primarily advising how to circumvent civil rights legislation.
In order to emphasize the Commission's new image, Erle Johnston suggested a name change to "Mississippi Information Agency" or "Mississippi Public Relations Commission."12 Johnston's redefinition was also a recognition of the Commission's increasingly tenuous existence. Since his inauguration, Governor Johnson had not officially activated the Commission by calling a meeting or appointing new members. At the end of the first biennium of the administration the Commission's appropriation was slashed, and in 1966 Representative J.A. Thigpen, Jr., introduced a bill calling for its abolition. To counter this attack, Commission member Representative Herman DeCell introduced a bill embracing Johnston's idea to change the Commission to a public relations agency. Neither bill was successful, and in June 1966 the legislature approved continued funding for the Commission. However, the agency's appropriation was further reduced, and the Legislature included a proviso in the appropriation act that Johnson had to officially activate the Commission before funding could be received. Accordingly, a meeting was called on August 8, 1966, although the governor did not attend. At the meeting members approved a new policy defining the Commission as the "watch dog over subversive individuals and organizations that advocate civil disobedience; as a public relations agency for the state; and as an advisor for local communities on problems resulting from federal laws or court orders."13
February 8, 1965, memo concerning files purge and investigation procedure SCR ID # 99-62-0-33-1-1-1
In contrast to Johnson, Governor John Bell Williams was more attentive to the Commission. Williams was also interested in the Commission's investigative function rather than public relations. This focus was reflected in his appointment of former FBI agent W. Webb. Burke as director, in September 1968, and his neglecting to fill the position of public relations officer.14 Burke compared the Commission to the FBI, stating that its purpose was to "conduct investigations into matters of interest to the public and which matters pertain to tax supported institutions." These included "requests from state, county, and municipal officials in matters pertaining to possible violations in connection with civil rights activities." Burke also reported that the agency's primary "external" contacts in order to fulfill its "mission" were the "use of confidential informants as is customary in any investigative agency." Investigators' weekly reports indicate that they continued to meet with local government and law officials to keep track of "developing situations" around the state.15
On January 18, 1972, William Waller was inaugurated as governor. The 1971 gubernatorial campaign lacked the customary segregationist rhetoric of previous campaigns, and the governor's inaugural address proclaimed that "Mississippi was "at the very beginning of a bright and prosperous new era."16 Although Waller activated the Commission and appointed new members, he did not support the agency and was invariably absent from meetings. In April 1973, he vetoed the agency's appropriation, reasoning that the Commission "forms no real indispensable services to the people of the state."17 The Commission was hopeful that the 1974 legislature would override Waller's actions.18 However, faced with imminent closure, the Commission voted at its last official meeting to seal and transfer the files to the Secretary of State for safekeeping. The Commission minutes state that commissioners hoped the investigators would be utilized by the Legislative Audit Committee.19 Although the members made plans for future meetings, the Commission officially closed its doors on June 30, 1973.
Although the Commission ceased functioning in 1973, the agency was not officially dissolved until 1977. In January 1977, legislators introduced bills to abolish the Commission and dispose of its records and equipment. Heated debate ensued over whether the records should be destroyed. Ultimately legislators approved a bill abolishing the agency and authorizing the records to be sealed at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History (MDAH) until 2027. On March 4, Governor Cliff Finch signed the bill into law. That same day, the Office of the Secretary of State transferred the Commission records from its storage facility in Flora, Mississippi, to MDAH. These records constituted "six filing cabinets, two unsealed pasteboard boxes said to contain fiscal records, two separate folders in a manila envelope, and a bound volume which was said to be a minute book." On March 7, Heber Ladner informed MDAH that there were also some records at the governor's office. This "small package, sealed and taped very securely" was delivered to Archives and History. MDAH received the cabinets locked; they were sealed with metal bands and stored in the vault. In accordance with the act abolishing the Commission, the penalties for any person who would "willfully examine, divulge, disseminate, alter, remove, or destroy said files prior to July 1, 2027," were posted prominently on each cabinet. MDAH photographed the storage process and initiated new stringent security procedures for the vault.20
Since 1977, the records of the defunct Sovereignty Commission have been
sealed in the MDAH vault while their fate has been determined in the courts.
The legal battle to open the files was initiated in 1977, when the American
Civil Liberties Union/Mississippi filed a class-action suit charging state
agencies with illegal surveillance of its citizens. As the case has evolved,
the central issue has been how to open the files while respecting the privacy
interests of individuals subjected to surveillance and named in the files. In
1998, after twenty-one years of legal wrangling, United States District Court
Judge William H. Barbour, Jr., ordered all Commission records not involved in
litigation to be opened to the public.21 The majority of records were
made available in electronic format in the MDAH search room on March 17, 1998.
Additional court-ordered releases by MDAH occurred on July 31, 2000, and
January 18, 2001. In 2002, MDAH provided an online full text version of the
Commission records accessible from the agency's website.