On 17 May 1954—soon known to many white southerners as Black Monday—the US Supreme Court issued its Brown v. Board of Education decision, which did away with the idea of “separate but equal” racially segregated schools. Some white southerners, including many in Mississippi, resented the end of their cherished and supposedly divinely ordained “southern way of life” and resorted to violence to defend the region’s racial status quo. Others resurrected interposition, a nineteenth-century doctrine under which the state had a right to “interpose” its sovereignty to protect citizens from federal actions that the state deemed unconstitutional, even though the US Supreme Court had rejected that theory a century earlier.
An overwhelming mood of defiance of the federal government dominated the 1956 state legislative session, which featured a parade of bills and resolutions designed to protect Mississippi’s racial customs. On 29 February the legislature unanimously passed an “interposition resolution” that declared the Brown decision “invalid.” The same day, lawmakers created the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission “to do and perform any and all acts and things deemed necessary and proper to protect the sovereignty of the state of Mississippi” from “encroachment . . . by the Federal Government or any branch, department or agency thereof.” A tax-supported state agency that was part of the executive branch, the Sovereignty Commission included the governor (who also served as chair), the lieutenant governor, the Speaker of the House, the attorney general, two state senators, three state representatives, and three citizens.
Neither the word segregation nor the word integration appeared in the carefully crafted legislation, but federal “encroachment” meant “forced racial integration,” and the Sovereignty Commission soon became identified as Mississippi’s segregation watchdog agency. With the aura of sophistication and respectability emanating from the word sovereignty, the commission was expected to maintain segregation and to wreck the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and other civil rights organizations in Mississippi.
Under the administration of Gov. James P. Coleman (1956–60), the commission took a muted approach, comparing itself to the FBI, “during times of war seeking out intelligence information about the enemy and what the enemy proposes to do.” By the fall of 1957, the public relations department had sent more than two hundred thousand pamphlets and other forms of direct mail to newspaper editors, television stations, and state lawmakers above the Mason-Dixon Line, trying to convince northerners that resistance to the Brown decision resulted not from racism but from principled objections to constitutional violations. At the same time, the Sovereignty Commission used paid and unpaid informants throughout the state to keep the NAACP and the Mississippi Progressive Voters’ League under surveillance. By the summer of 1959, these informants and agency investigators had enabled the Sovereignty Commission to accumulate more than four thousand index cards and several hundred investigative files containing baseless rumors, random information, and bizarre details. The commission also paid members of the state’s African American community, including H. H. Humes, editor of the Greenville Delta Leader, to oppose integration.
In 1959 Ross R. Barnett won election to the Mississippi governorship after a campaign in which he promised to preserve rigid racial segregation. Reflecting his more confrontational approach, the Sovereignty Commission became more aggressive in the early summer of 1960. Erle E. Johnston, director of the agency’s public relations branch, organized a speakers bureau program. More than 100 Sovereignty Commission members, state officials, legislators, judges, attorneys, newspaper editors, and businesspeople delivered approximately 120 addresses in northern and western states, painting a rosy picture of the state’s race relations and attempting to raise alarm about federal actions. In addition, the Sovereignty Commission sponsored a film, Message from Mississippi, that similarly extolled the benefits of segregation. Also on Barnett’s watch, the Sovereignty Commission’s investigators embarked on a broadly defined “subversive hunt” as Mississippi’s white power structure defined civil rights movement leaders, activists, and sympathizers as subversives for their opposition to racial conformity. During the final two years of Barnett’s administration, after the 1962 University of Mississippi desegregation crisis, the Sovereignty Commission became involved in a number of bizarre incidents, including inspections of allegedly “integrated” outdoor toilets on construction sites and investigations of suspected cases of miscegenation.
Under Barnett’s successor, Gov. Paul B. Johnson (1964–68), the Sovereignty Commission’s role changed again, in part as a consequence of increasing violence and incidents such as the murders of NAACP leader Medgar Evers in 1963 and of civil rights activists Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner in 1964. The Sovereignty Commission began investigating the activities of such unreconstructed white supremacist groups as the Ku Klux Klan and the Americans for the Preservation of the White Race as a way of distancing the agency from openly violent organizations. However, the commission continued its work against the civil rights movement—for example, via the Mississippi Negro Citizenship Association, a Sovereignty Commission creation that sought to co-opt the “thinking Negroes of Mississippi” and blunt the work of the Council of Federated Organizations and other more radical groups. Johnson’s successor, Gov. John Bell Williams (1968–72), dismantled the agency’s public relations functions and concentrated its resources on investigating anti–Vietnam War demonstrators, black nationalists, and campus radicals.
On 17 April 1973, true to a vow he made during his gubernatorial campaign, Gov. William L. Waller vetoed the Sovereignty Commission’s annual appropriation bill, bringing the agency’s activities to a close. The 1956 act that had created the Sovereignty Commission remained on the state’s law books until 1977, when the legislature abolished the agency and voted to seal its official records until 2027. Shortly thereafter, the American Civil Liberties Union initiated a legal effort to open the records to the public. Twenty-one years later, those efforts began to reach fruition with the release of the first commission records, and in 2002 all of the agency’s documents were made available via the Mississippi Department of Archives and History’s Sovereignty Commission Online website.
- Joseph Crespino, In Search of Another Country: Mississippi and the Conservative Counterrevolution (2007)
- Erle Johnston, Mississippi’s Defiant Years, 1953–1973: An Interpretive Documentary with Personal Experiences (1990)
- Yasuhiro Katagiri, Humanities in the South: Journal of the Southern Humanities Council (2002)
- Yasuhiro Katagiri, The Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission: Civil Rights and States’ Rights (2001)
- Neil R. McMillen, The Citizens’ Council: Organized Resistance to the Second Reconstruction, 1954–64 (1994)
- Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Sovereignty Commission Online website, www.mdah.state.ms.us/arrec/digital_archives/sovcom/
- Sarah Rowe-Sims, Journal of Mississippi History (Spring 1999)