A new documentary reveals how the Mississippi state government spied on civil rights activists in the 1950s and 1960s. A little-known state agency called the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission hired spies to infiltrate the civil rights movement and squash attempts to desegregate the state and register African Americans to vote. Some of the spies were themselves African-American. The Commission generated more than 160,000 pages of reports, many of which were shared with local police departments whose officers belonged to the Ku Klux Klan. The film, "Spies of Mississippi," also looks at how some of those reports contributed to the 1964 deaths of Freedom Summer activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner 50 years ago. For more, we speak with Jerry Mitchell, an investigative journalist for the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. He won the release of more than 2,400 pages of Commission records in 1989, and used those to reopen many cold cases from the civil rights era. His work helped lead to the 1994 conviction of the killer of Mississippi NAACP leader Medgar Evers and paved the way for 23 more convictions. We are also joined by Dawn Porter, the award-winning producer and director of "Spies of Mississippi," which is now streaming online at PBS Independent Lens.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to another story of government spying on activists, this time during the civil rights movement. The story is told in a new film now airing on PBS. It’s called Spies of Mississippi.
LAWRENCE GUYOT: Lyndon Johnson said, "There’s America, there’s the South, and then there’s Mississippi."
RALPH EUBANKS: Well, the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission was Mississippi’s spy agency during the civil rights movement.
WILLIAM WINTER: The Sovereignty Commission wanted to know who the activists were in the black community. They were out to stop overt efforts at integration.
JERRY MITCHELL: It’s state government itself. We’re not just talking about some rednecks on the street are pulling this off. This is defiance at its highest levels.
MARGARET BLOCK: We knew we were being followed. I knew my life was in danger.
REP. BENNIE THOMPSON: This is still the United States of America, and you don’t treat American citizens this way.
WILLIAM WINTER: As far as the Sovereignty Commission went, in terms of crossing legal lines, I think it is accurate to say that they crossed them all the time.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s the trailer for Spies of Mississippi, a new film that exposes how in the ’50s and ’60s a little-known state agency called the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission hired spies to infiltrate the civil rights movement and squash attempts to desegregate the state and register African Americans to vote. Some of the spies were themselves African-American. The commission generated more than 160,000 pages of reports, many of which were shared with local police departments whose officers belonged to the Ku Klux Klan. The film looks at how some of those reports contributed to the 1964 deaths of the Freedom Summer activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner. Fifty years ago, that was.
Well, for more, we go to Jackson, Mississippi, where we’re joined by Jerry Mitchell, an investigative journalist for the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, won the release of more than 2,400 pages of commission records in 1989 and used those to reopen many cold cases from the civil rights era. His work helped lead to the 1994 conviction of the killer of Mississippi NAACP leader Medgar Evers and paved the way for 23 more convictions.
Here in New York, we’re joined by Dawn Porter, the award-winning producer and director of Spies of Mississippi. The film premiered this month on PBS Independent Lens, and you can watch it online until March 12.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Jerry Mitchell, what were you most surprised by in the documents that you got?
JERRY MITCHELL: Well, lots of things—the fact that they had spied on so many activists, the fact they had spied on Medgar Evers and later tried to help basically acquit the killer in that case, as well as reports on my own newspaper from back in the ’50s and ’60s. So, that was interesting, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: Dawn Porter, why did you decide to turn this into a film?
DAWN PORTER: You know, when I first heard this story, that there was not only a spy agency, government spy agency, but that there were also African-American activists who were involved in the spying, I thought that’s a piece of civil rights history that isn’t widely known, but it fills in a lot of the missing—connects the dots in a lot of ways. And I thought people would be interested in it. And I just was fascinated by the lengths that state government will go to subvert democracy.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to a clip from your film, from Spies of Mississippi, about one of the people who was spied on by the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission. We hear from historian Neil McMillen, author Rick Bowers, and Mississippi Congressman Bennie Thompson, who was an activist at the time. It begins, well, with our guest in Jackson, Jerry Mitchell.
JERRY MITCHELL: I’ll never forget finding the file on Clyde Kennard, the young man whose great crime against the state of Mississippi was to apply to go to college.
NEIL McMILLEN: Clyde Kennard was a Korean War veteran, an upstanding citizen who had studied in the Northern universities and who was very ambitious and a profoundly decent and good guy. In the ’50s, Clyde Kennard tried to go to the University of Southern Mississippi.
RICK BOWERS: In the 1950s, the few African Americans in the South who were able to enroll in college could only attend black schools. Kennard’s application to attend Mississippi Southern was seen as an attack on segregation and set into motion a swift response from the state. His application was given to the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, an organization few Mississippians even knew existed.
They did a report that tracked his background growing up in Mississippi, his time spent with his family in Chicago, his time in the military, his time at the University of Chicago, and his time back in Mississippi helping his ailing mother on her chicken farm. With multiple agents tracking everybody in his background, they couldn’t come up with anything that could undercut his application to go to college.
NEIL McMILLEN: The police, with the cooperation of the State Sovereignty Commission, planted stolen chickenfeed from the county coop. About some—about 20 bucks’ worth of chickenfeed were planted on his farm. He didn’t steal them. Everybody knows that. But he was arrested for that, and he was put in prison for seven years.
RICK BOWERS: He was sentenced to Parchman Penitentiary, the worst prison at that time probably in the country. They let him out a couple of months before he died of cancer, but only because he was terminal.
REP. BENNIE THOMPSON: That Sovereignty Commission, it did all it could to hold back progress in our state and basically discourage any kind of efforts to bring black and white people together.
AMY GOODMAN: That last voice, Congressmember Bennie Thompson. This is a clip from Spies of Mississippi, directed by Dawn Porter. So, talk more about the Sovereignty Commission, Dawn.
DAWN PORTER: So the Sovereignty Commission is established in response to Brown v. Board of Education, the famous Supreme Court case that allows integration of schools. That case was seen by Mississippi as almost a declaration of war. It was viewed as an attack on Mississippi’s sovereignty and set into motion a vast response from the state. One of the things they did was establish this spy agency. And I think what’s so remarkable about this is it was a spy agency hidden in plain sight. There was an allocation of taxpayer dollars, $250,000, which in 1950s money is serious money. There’s an office that reports to the governor of Mississippi. And one of the things they did was hire spies.
So, in the early years, what you see in the '50s is exactly what happens to Clyde Kennard. His crime was applying to go to a white school. And I thought it's such wonderful tie-in to the segment you just did about how when a state government feels that its authority, its directions are being challenged, that anything goes. And so, they literally ruin this young man’s life. I think he had come from the University of Chicago. He wanted to be near his family. He wanted to continue his education. And to deliberately plant evidence in order to arrest him and sentence him to prison, I think, is just—I wish it was more shocking, but it’s certainly terrible.
AMY GOODMAN: This is another clip from Spies of Mississippi, featuring Horace Harned, a member of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, beginning with a promotional video about the Jackson Police Department leading up to Freedom Summer.
PROMOTIONAL VIDEO: The Jackson Police Department operates with the best demonstration deterrent of any city in the country. In addition to Thompson’s tank, armor-plated and equipped with nine machine-gun positions, the arsenal includes cage trucks for transporting masses of arrested violators; searchlight trucks, each of which can light three city blocks in case of night riots; police dog teams, trained to trail, search a building or disperse a mob or crowd; mounted police, for controlling parades and pedestrian traffic; and compounds and detention facilities to hold and house 10,000 prisoners. Along with these ironclad police facilities, there are new ironclad state laws outlawing picketing, economic boycotting and demonstrating, other laws to control the printing and distribution of certain types of information, and laws to dampen complaints to federal authorities.
HORACE HARNED JR.: We called out the Highway Patrol and the Guard, people like that, to keep them in line. We kept them in line. We locked up a lot of them, put them in jail for disorderly conduct, that sort of thing. The jails in Jackson were full, and several other places we had them.
PRISONER 1: I don’t mind coming to jail. I don’t mind suffering at all. And I will suffer, sure, just for my freedom.
PRISONER 2: I want equal rights. I want equal rights.
HORACE HARNED JR.: We were not intimidated. And I think that’s important. If you get intimidated, you can’t control anything.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Horace Harned, a member of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission. If—Jerry Mitchell, if you could talk about who he was and the significance of this commission in your state of Mississippi?
JERRY MITCHELL: Well, it was a very powerful commission. It was actually headed by the governor of the state and the state’s most powerful leaders. You had people who were in the—you know, the most powerful members of the Legislature, the lieutenant governor. You know, all these people that held the highest offices, basically, had control of this agency, which had law enforcement powers, had judicial powers to subpoena, to get anything they wanted. It was frightening from a power perspective. You know, they had the blessings of the governor on down.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, and when we come back, I want to talk about particularly the African-American leaders and others—not always leaders—who were recruited by the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission to spy on their colleagues, on their communities, on their congregations. We’re talking to Jerry Mitchell, investigative reporter for The Clarion-Ledger, and Dawn Porter, who’s the director of Spies of Mississippi. Back in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue with the new film that’s airing on PBS around the country on Independent Lens called Spies of Mississippi. I want to go to a clip of R.L. Bolden, who is the former vice president of the Mississippi NAACP, who many believe was Agent X, who reported to the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission.
R.L. BOLDEN: They claim that I was a spy. That was a lie. I wasn’t no spy. I was worse than shocked. I didn’t realize that kind of information was out there, because it wasn’t true. It’s possible that the detective agency was passing on information.
HOLLIS WATKINS: I knew R.L. very well. He was the vice president of the state NAACP, and he was intimately involved with us. And we didn’t have any signs or indication that he was to the contrary. It was only through the diligence of late Senator Henry Kirksey, who began to pinpoint things to determine that he was working with the State Sovereignty Commission. And that had to do with him digging off into the files and looking at reports and seeing reports being given about certain specific meetings and him recollecting who was at the meeting. And everybody that attended that meeting were mentioned except one person, that he knew was there, and that’s when he came to the conclusion that since this is a pattern, that one person who was not mentioned at these meetings, that I know was there, have to be the one that’s submitting the report.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s civil rights activist Hollis Watkins talking about R.L. Bolden, who was the former vice president of the Mississippi NAACP—and, it turns out, once the documents were released, it was revealed that he was one of the spies recruited by the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission. Dawn Porter, talk more about R.L. Bolden, his significance and—with the missing three civil rights activists, Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman.
DAWN PORTER: You know, so the Sovereignty Commission initially starts by having white agents, former FBI men. Then they move on to have high-profile African Americans. Those African Americans were revealed. Their identities were revealed. And so, the commission realized it needed ordinary people. So, R.L. Bolden ended up being an ordinary American, extraordinary spy. He infiltrated the highest levels of the civil rights movement. He was at a very important training that the civil rights activists conducted before Freedom Summer. So—
AMY GOODMAN: In Ohio.
DAWN PORTER: In Ohio. So, in Ohio, all the students that were about to go south were brought together, and Bolden was at that meeting. He gave the license plate and the pictures of the civil rights workers Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner. Other people also gave this information, but he—we know that he gave this information to his handlers. His handlers turned that over to the Mississippi police, who were infiltrated by the Klan. The significance of that is, I think that the way the Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner murders are often described, it’s as if they were pulled over randomly for being in an interracial car, which couldn’t have been farther from the truth. They were being targeted by the Sovereignty Commission. Their every move was watched. This was quite a deliberate act to pull them over. And, you know, it results in their murders. It results in their deaths—and one of the most important events of the civil rights movement, which began—which did actually open up Mississippi, but what a tragic way to do it.
AMY GOODMAN: Jerry Mitchell, what were you most surprised by in these documents that you got, especially around this issue of the recruiting of people within the movement and then those not necessarily in the movement? I want to play one more clip—but who were African-American and were leaders and were seen as part of the movement. Let’s go back to Spies of Mississippi. This clip includes Lawrence Guyot, a civil rights activist in Mississippi since 1961. It starts, though, with Rick Bowers, author of the book, Spies of Mississippi.
RICK BOWERS: Any time there’s a great freedom movement, there are people who end up on both sides. And if we could transport ourselves back to Mississippi at that time, it was a confusing time. There were many shades of opinion on all the issues related to civil rights.
LAWRENCE GUYOT: We had a lot of people who felt that there was no way that the civil rights movement could possibly win, so why not get on the winning side early? And others who said, "Well, the government asked me to do it, therefore it has to be legal. The government doesn’t do illegal things, does it?"
AMY GOODMAN: Lawrence Guyot, the civil rights activist in Mississippi since 1961. Jerry Mitchell, talk more about what they are saying.
JERRY MITCHELL: Well, you know, you had these spies that are hired by detective agencies. That’s basically how the Sovereignty Commission is able to operate and kind of keep one—a bit of distance, if that makes any sense, between them and the spies, so that the detective agency is reporting back to them, and they actually don’t record the name of the spy in the files. And so, that’s the way they kind of operated and were able to pull this off.
And I might add, you know, there are actually, in the case of like B.L. Bell, he actually volunteered his services, which I know seems very odd. But one of the reasons and one of the motivations for some of these spies was money. They were being paid. Percy Greene, who was an editor for the Jackson Advocate, was actually sent up north and paid to speak. And he and other speakers like him would say things like, "Oh, you know, we love Mississippi. We love segregation. We love the way it is right now." And so, the idea behind this is not just spies, but also spreading propaganda, which, of course, like I said, was paid for.
AMY GOODMAN: The pastors involved, very painful part of this story, tell us.
DAWN PORTER: So, Reverend H.H. Hume, really influential pastor, huge congregation and a radio audience in Mississippi—and you have to remember, at that time it was really difficult for African Americans to get that kind of influence. It turns out that he was providing information to the Sovereignty Commission and was being paid for it. You know, it’s as if Jesse Jackson was betraying the civil rights community today. That’s how significant he was in the state of Mississippi. And I think it speaks to, you know, what Jerry said. There’s a particular kind of betrayal when your spiritual leader and a person everyone wants to emulate and look up to turns out to be an informant.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you hope to accomplish with this film, Dawn?
DAWN PORTER: You know, I really—everyone is outraged by finding out there were spies during a movement like the civil rights movement, that we all now agree led to great freedoms. But I really loved the segment you just did, and I think that there’s a tie in history. These tactics are not new. The Fourth Amendment and the First Amendment are not convenient. You cannot sometimes have democracy. You need to—you know, these are actually really enemies of our Constitution. And I think that those—when those tactics are still happening today, we need to understand that history.
AMY GOODMAN: We have to wrap up, but we’re going to do part two 2: Interview with "Spies of Mississippi" Director and Reporter Jerry Mitchell, and then we’ll post it online at democracynow.org, including the conversation between Jerry Mitchell and Myrlie Evers, the widow of Medgar Evers. Jerry Mitchell, thanks for being with us, investigative reporter for The Clarion-Ledger, and thank you so much to Dawn Porter. Spies of Mississippi is her PBS Independent Lens film.