On Wednesday May 24 1961, Freedom Riders boarded interstate buses into the segregated southern United States for the journey to Jackson, Mississippi. Surrounded by Highway Patrol and the National Guard, the buses arrived in Jackson without incident, but the riders were immediately arrested when they tried to use the white-only facilities at the depot. What aught our eyes is that when the camera clicked for their mug shots, many of the riders smiled.
The Freedom Riders’ mug shots and other images seen here were collected by the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission (MSSC), the state’s official counter civil rights agency from 1956–1977. Directed by governors of Mississippi, the commission aimed to “…protect the sovereignty of the state of Mississippi, and her sister states” from “encroachment thereon by the Federal Government”. The MSSD was a secret spy agency to preserve segregation and maintain “the Mississippi way of life” and white supremacy.
MSCC was determined to portray the state and racial segregation in a positive light. The “commission penetrated most of the major civil rights organizations in Mississippi, even planting clerical workers in the offices of activist attorneys. It informed police about planned marches or boycotts and encouraged police harassment of African-Americans who cooperated with civil rights groups. Its agents obstructed voter registration by blacks and harassed African-Americans seeking to attend white schools.”
But the agency was given unusual authority to investigate citizens of the state, issue subpoenas and even exercise police powers, although it was not attached to any law enforcement agency. During its existence, the commission profiled more than 87,000 persons associated with, or suspected to be associated with, the civil rights movement (which it opposed). It investigated the work and credit histories and even personal relations of persons it investigated. It collaborated with local white officials of government, police, and business to pressure African Americans to give up activism, especially by economic pressures, such as causing them to be fired, evicted from rental housing, or to have their businesses boycotted…
The commission’s activities included attempting to preserve the state’s segregation and Jim Crow laws, opposing school integration, and ensuring portrayal of the state “in a positive light.” Among its first employees were a former FBI agent and a transfer from the state highway patrol. “The agency outwardly extolled racial harmony, but it secretly paid investigators and spies to gather both information and misinformation.”Staff of the commission worked closely with, and in some cases funded, the notorious White Citizens’ Councils. From 1960 to 1964, the commission secretly funded the White Citizens Council, a private organization, with $190,000 of state funds.
The commission also used its intelligence-gathering capabilities to assist in the defense of Byron De La Beckwith, the murderer of Medgar Evers in 1963, during his second trial in 1964. Sov-Com investigator Andy Hopkins provided De La Beckwith’s attorneys with information on the potential jurors, which the attorneys used during the selection process.
In 1964, the Sov-Com passed on information regarding civil rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman, to the conspirators in their murders during Freedom Summer. Commission agent A.L. Hopkins met with Neshoba County law enforcement and suggested the disappearance of the three young men was a propaganda ploy.
After the election of Paul B. Johnson Jr., the agency director, Erle Johnston, owner of The Scott County Times, expanded the public relations role. He tried to form closer ties with business while monitoring proclaimed subversive groups, such as the Congress of Racial Equality, founded by James L. Farmer, Jr. Johnston left the commission in 1968. In 1980 he was elected as the mayor of Forest in Scott County, serving from 1981 into 1985.
The commission officially closed in 1977, four years after Governor Bill Waller vetoed further funding.