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The KGB Of Mississippi

A shadowy state agency that spied on civil rights workers opens its files

By John Cloud

TIME magazine

(TIME, March 30) -- Change comes more slowly to some places than others. Slowest of all, perhaps, to Mississippi, where only last week did the cold war finally end.

Not the global cold war, of course, but a Southern version writ small and mean: a war by Jim Crow segregationists defending their "way of life" against those they saw as insurgents and traitors. The major battles have long since become part of the national consciousness--Martin Luther King Jr. writing from the Birmingham jail, Freedom Riders enduring hatred at every stop, Bull Connor hosing down children like animals. But last week America learned much more about a furtive, blood-spattered unit in that struggle: a sort of Mississippi KGB known euphemistically as the Sovereignty Commission.

"Sovereignty" was just a $2 word for state-sponsored racism. From the day the commission was spawned by the state legislature in 1956 until its defunding in 1973, its secrecy-cloaked, taxpayer-financed job was to maintain segregation at all costs. Last week, after a 21-year legal battle forced open commission records, Mississippians got a fuller picture of just how high those costs rose.

Even now, years after the most damning files were almost certainly purged, the records reveal ugly abuses of power. The commission's investigators spied on almost anyone, black or white, who publicly promoted racial equality--most often local civil rights workers but also visiting Yankees. Commission investigators documented the whereabouts, finances and sexual habits of civil rights leaders. They fed some of the information to the targets' employers and the Ku Klux Klan. Untold numbers of people were fired and others beaten and perhaps even killed after the commission targeted them.

Vernon Dahmer Sr. was probably one of them. In January 1966 two carloads of thugs tossed lighted jugs of gasoline into his Hattiesburg home. (In order to encourage blacks to vote, he had announced earlier that day that they could pay their poll taxes at his shop.) He shot at the attackers while his family escaped, but Dahmer died of smoke inhalation. Although four men were convicted in the case, several others escaped trial. And the purported mastermind, former Klan Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers, was freed after two mistrials.

In a similar case, Byron de la Beckwith had escaped punishment for the 1963 murder of civil rights icon Medgar Evers. But he was finally convicted in 1994 after leaked documents revealed that the commission may have blocked civil rights sympathizers from sitting on his jury. Dahmer's family, which has battled for years to bring all his killers to justice, hopes that the records released last week will contain evidence that could lead to Bowers' retrial.

As in other institutions of the cold war era that are slowly being laid bare, we see both evil and ineptitude. For all its terror, the Sovereignty Commission often seemed like a band of Klanstone Kops. Investigators were flummoxed by the race of a baby with a light complexion and dark, curly hair. They railed hilariously at "beatniks" and "Castroites" and sought to boycott sponsors of integrationist entertainers such as Lena Horne and Marlon Brando.

While most Americans had shrugged off McCarthyist paranoia years before, even today former commission members speak with great fear of commie infiltration. "It was all-out warfare to keep the communists and the agitators from taking over Mississippi," former commissioner Horace Harned, now 77, said last week. "We did what we had to do."

Among the 5,000 tipsters listed in the documents are many blacks who informed on their neighbors. The most notable may be Charles Evers, brother of Medgar, who went on to become a small-town mayor and U.S. Senate candidate. The records show that at the same time the commission was tracking him--there are more than 1,400 documents with his name--he would pass along information for the commission. He denies being an informant, however. "If you don't know who your enemies are and talk to them," he asks, "how are you going to deal with them?"

By 1973 the commission was "a joke," says the former Governor, William Waller, who vetoed its funding that year. Today Mississippi is a different state, with a diverse and thriving economy and more black elected officials than any other state. The Sovereignty Commission files serve both as a reminder of a more sinister time and of the progress bought by martyrs' blood.

--Reported by Timothy Roche/Jackson
In TIME This Week

Cover Date: March 30, 1998

Why Clinton Is Still Buoyant
Outrageous Fortune
The Lives Of Kathleen Willey
Viewpoint: The Trouble With The Present Tense
Africa Rising
Dividing Line: My Dungeon Shook
Courting Controversy
The KGB Of Mississippi
Romancing The Widow?
The Notebook: Primary Colors, Part II

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