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The Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission: An Agency History lesson plan


Few students are aware that during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, the Mississippi state government was actively involved in “spying” operations involving its own citizens and visitors . As they investigate this period of history, students should be guided to understand the “happenings” in context. Additionally, they should be encouraged to examine the overall issues in order to gain insight into the complexities of the times and the events.


Mississippi Studies Framework: competencies 1, 3, and 4


Grades 4 (with modifications) through 12.


  • Mississippi History Now article

  • Overhead transparency (optional)

  • Copies of context clues

  • Unlined paper/construction paper for time-line

  • Large sheets of butcher paper for Carousel review activity

  • Colored markers


Students will:

use context clues to compose definitions of significant vocabulary words;

describe the social and political climate of the period in which the Sovereignty Commission was created AND in which it was dissolved;

determine the purpose of the Commission and its funding source;

identify procedures used by the Commission to carry out its purpose and give specific examples of each procedure;

list governors of the state during this period and determine the procedure(s) each one supported in his relationship to the Commission;

use their understanding of the vocabulary words to determine how actions of the state government during this period caused conflict between Mississippi and the United States government.


Have students pretend they are having an over nighter with a few of their closest friends. They will probably have lots of their favorite foods available and plenty of music on hand. Ask them to suggest what topics of conversation they might talk about through the night. List these on the board. Now ask them to think about how they would feel if, two weeks later, they found out that there had been a hidden microphone in the room, recording everything. Have them write a paragraph expressing their feelings about this and speculating how, when, and where, the recording could possibly be used.



Encourage students to brainstorm the names of “spy” agencies with which they are familiar. They may name government organizations or groups they have seen in the movies, on television, or in comics. Ask if they are aware of a spy agency which operated in Mississippi from 1956 through the 1970s. Let them suggest the purpose of such an agency.


Tell students that the topic of this lesson is the State Sovereignty Commission, a state agency, which existed in Mississippi from 1956 -1977. Along with studying the events which occurred in the state, explain that it is important to understand how those events were interpreted in relation to what was happening on the national level.


The meaning of basic vocabulary is essential for students to grasp the significance of these events in state history. On the board or overhead, list the terms: SOVEREIGNTY; FEDERALISM; SEGREGATION; and STATES RIGHTS/INTERPOSITION.


Distribute to each student a copy of the following for them to match each statement with the appropriate vocabulary word. In a brief class discussion, teacher will determine accuracy. (Answers can be found at the conclusion of the lesson.)


“One would expect state/national conflict when national policy is perceived as a threat to the people and interests that dominate a state’s political system.” (Krane and Shaffer, Mississippi Government and Politics, p. 250)


The U.S. Constitution “and the government it created were to be the ‘supreme law’ of the land; no state would have the authority to defy it.” (Brinkley, The Unfinished Nation, p. 160.)


The main purpose for composing a new state constitution in 1890 was to disfranchise black Mississippians. Other Jim Crow statutes required that blacks be separated in transportation facilities, restaurants, offices, cemeteries, etc.


In 1954, the Mississippi Constitution was amended to allow the Mississippi Legislature to abolish public schools, and over the next ten years, the Legislature adopted forty documents designed to circumvent the Brown decision handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court.


In groups of two or three, students will NOW use these context clues to write their own definitions of each vocabulary word. Teacher will clarify meaning and understanding by leading a large-group discussion.


Students will generate a list of questions they would like to know about the Sovereignty Commission as they read the Mississippi History Now article. Teacher will add suggestions so that the questions will include information in objectives 1, 2, and 3: What was the Commission’s purpose; what things did the Commission do to carry out its purpose; how did the political and social climate in Mississippi contribute to the establishment of the Commission.


As students read through the FIRST section of the article, they will use brief words and phrases to answer the questions in their notes. When they finish, have them compare their answers with a partner. For additional reinforcement, they can use the “Talk It Out” strategy.


Students will construct a graphic organizer for objective 3 to “see” specific examples of how the Commission did its work. You may want to suggest a chart or tree map. In order to understand this part of the objective, students will need to read the rest of the article.
NOTE: Work of the Commission was carried out through its investigative, advisory, and public relations powers. As students read about the governors, they will find specific examples of each function.


Lead students in a large-group discussion regarding this information and have them compare/contrast these tactics with what they know about more modern “spy” agencies they mentioned at the beginning of the lesson.


Ask students to draw a time-line illustrating the governors who served during this period. They will also design an icon or symbol to represent each of the procedures used by the Commission. As they complete their time-line, they will indicate how each governor used the Commission by adding the appropriate icon.


From their time-line, students will write a short report indicating the various ways the governors related to the Commission. For extra credit, allow them to give specific examples from their prior assignment.


To complete their understanding of objective 1, ask students to compare/contrast in a discussion the social and political climate of the state in 1954 (when the Commission was created) and in 1977 (when it was dissolved).


Students will again refer to their vocabulary words. Ask them to show how the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission brought the state into conflict with the federal (national) government and to show how the state government justified its actions.



Ask students to consider the questions they raised earlier in the lesson to determine that all have been answered.


For a carousel review activity, teacher will locate large pieces of butcher paper around the room, each with a different topic from the lesson. In groups (each with their own distinctive colored marker), students will write as much information as they can remember about the topic. Teacher will call time after 2 or 3 minutes. Each group will move to the next topic and add information.


Teacher may want to administer an objective assessment or have students write an essay indicating how this lesson has affected their understanding of Mississippi history.



Vocabulary construction


Graphic organizer


Participation in class discussions and carousel review activity




Other written assignments


Teacher-made objective assessment or essay



Students may write a short biography of one of the governors of this period.


Reflect on the uses of governmental powers and money. Stage a debate on whether the Sovereignty Commission was justified in its actions or if its actions constituted an abuse of power.


Examine the question: How were the actions of the Sovereignty Commission like or different from the activities of the CIA or the FBI?


View Part 3 of "Eyes on the Prize," for a more in-depth perspective on the federal vs. states’ rights issue.

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