The Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission was created in March 1956 by an act of the Mississippi Legislature. It came in the wake of the May 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka public school desegregation ruling by the U. S. Supreme Court. The court ruled that laws enforcing segregated schools were unconstitutional and called for desegregation of schools “with all deliberate speed.”
The Supreme Court ruling sent shock waves among people who believed in the separation of the races. Like other southern states in the United States, Mississippi responded to Brown with legislation to strengthen the legal walls of separation.
Shrouded in the rhetoric of state's rights, the act creating the Sovereignty Commission provided the agency with broad powers. The commission's objective was to “do and perform any and all acts and things deemed necessary and proper to protect the sovereignty of the state of Mississippi, and her sister states” from a perceived “encroachment thereon by the Federal Government or any branch, department or agency thereof; to resist the usurpation of the rights and powers reserved to this state and our sister states by the Federal Government or any branch, department or agency thereof.” To exercise this loosely defined objective, the commission was granted extensive investigative capabilities.
The governor of Mississippi was appointed ex-officio chairman (in 1956 the governor was J. P. Coleman). Ex-officio means a person serves by virtue of the office he or she holds. Other ex-officio members were the president of the Mississippi Senate as vice chairman, the state attorney general, and the Speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives. In addition, members of the commission included three citizens appointed by the governor from each of the Mississippi Supreme Court districts; 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 the governor's term.
The commission itself was a small agency with a staff of a director, public relations director, investigators, and clerical staff. In addition, throughout its existence the commission used both paid and unpaid informants to supplement its investigation team. The commission also used private detective agencies to conduct investigations.
As the state's official tax-funded agency to combat activities of the Civil Rights Movement, the commission performed many duties. Although varied, these tasks can be divided into three general functions: investigative, advisory, and public relations. For seventeen years, from 1956 to 1973, the commission spied on civil rights workers, acted as a clearinghouse for information on civil rights activities and legislation from around the nation, funneled money to pro-segregation causes, and distributed right-wing propaganda.
While these core functions remained consistent throughout the life of the agency, the relative importance of each function and the execution of duties reflected not only the expertise of each director, but more importantly, the preference of the successive governors. Briefly, J. P. Coleman (1956-1960), the first governor to head the commission, favored the low-key approach through the public relations function. Above all, Coleman tried to cultivate an image of Mississippi in which race relations were good and citizens were law abiding. Consequently, the commission sought to put a lid on situations that might tarnish this image. Coleman did not allow the commission to channel money to the Citizens' Council, a grassroots pro-segregation movement.
His successor, Governor Ross Barnett (1960-1964), expanded the investigative function of the commission. Commission investigators toured the state and wrote reports on civil rights activities of individuals and organizations, including scrutinizing reading material and libraries. The rumor mill and race baiters fed the commission, and anyone who appeared to transgress racial lines or espouse a vaguely liberal perspective was likely to be brought to its attention. Barnett's expanded role for the commission also included funding for the Citizens' Council.
During the tenure of Governor Paul B.Johnson, Jr. (1964-1968) the commission promoted its public relations functions. Following the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the commission proposed a “long-range plan for an office in Washington to promote conservative viewpoints and policies in legislation.” The commission also donated small amounts to African-American individuals and organizations sympathetic to segregation. For two years after his inauguration, Governor Johnson had not officially activated the commission by calling a meeting or appointing new members. The Mississippi Legislature in June 1966 included a provision in its reduced $200,000 appropriation that Governor Johnson had to officially activate the commission before any funding could be received. Accordingly, a meeting was called on August 8,1966, although Johnson did not attend.
At the meeting members approved a new policy defining the commission as a “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.”
In reality, it was business as usual for commission investigators, who continued to track individuals and groups who challenged racial segregation. In addition, the commission served its advisory function by recommending ways to circumvent the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
In contrast to Johnson, Governor John Bell Williams (1968-1972) was more attentive to the Sovereignty Commission. Williams not only authorized meetings but was usually in attendance. The new governor, interested in the commission's investigative function rather than public relations, appointed former FBI agent W. Webb Burke as director in September 1968, and neglected to fill the public relations position.
Subsequently, the focus of the commission became “intelligence gathering.” In a routine report, completed by all state agencies in 1971, Burke made no mention of public relations as a function of the commission, describing the purpose or function of the agency as “conducting investigations into matters of interest to the public and which matters pertain to tax supported institutions.”
“[R]requests from state, county, and municipal officials in matters pertaining to possible violations in connection with civil rights activities,” were honored, as were “functions added to the agency since formation,” such as investigations of “campus student disturbances and use of drugs and sale of same on campuses of state operated schools.” Reiterating these points in a May 1971 Times Picayune interview, Burke compared the commission to the House Un-American Activities Committee or the FBI.
Although the next governor, William Waller (1972-1976) authorized programs of the commission and appointed new members, he was absent from meetings. It was no longer politically expedient to support such an agency, and in April 1973, Waller vetoed its 1973 appropriation. At the last official Sovereignty Commission meeting on June 22, 1973, members voted to seal and transfer the agency's files to the secretary of state for safekeeping. Although members made plans for future meetings, the commission officially closed its doors June 30, 1973.
Although the commission ceased to function in 1973, the agency was not officially dissolved until 1977. In January 1977, Mississippi legislators introduced bills to abolish the commission and dispose of its records and equipment. After much heated debate, the legislature approved an act which abolished the commission and authorized its records be sealed at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History until July 1, 2027.
On March 4, 1977, the Office of the Secretary of State transferred the Sovereignty Commission records to the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. The department received the locked cabinets, sealed them with metal bands, and placed them in its vault.
While the records of the defunct Sovereignty Commission sat locked and sealed in the Department of Archives and History vault, legal battles began over their fate. Twenty-one years later, on March 17, 1998, the bulk of the papers were opened to the public. Subsequent releases on July 31, 2000, and January 18, 2001, completed the process. The public finally had access to the infamous files in electronic format at three computer workstations in the Mississippi Department of Archives and History library. The Mississippi Department of Archives and History put the Sovereignty Commission papers online in late 2002.
This article is condensed from Sarah Rowe-Sims's article in the Spring 1999 edition of The Journal of Mississippi History. Rowe-Sims, special projects officer in the archives and library division, Mississippi Department of Archives and History, was part of the team that processed the Sovereignty Commission records.