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Review: 'Spies of Mississippi': Espionage in the heart of Dixie

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"There's America, there's the South and then there's Mississippi," Lyndon B. Johnson is quoted as saying in Dawn Porter's documentary film "Spies of Mississippi." A realization of Rick Bowers' 2010 book on the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, the film premieres Monday on PBS; not coincidentally, it is Black History Month, to which public television has long been one of the most faithful and visible contributors.

Founded in the 1950s as Supreme Court rulings began to chip away at Jim Crow, the Sovereignty Commission was an instrument of domestic intelligence-gathering whose stated mission was to preserve segregation. From a few operatives working under the governor, it grew into "the Stasi of Mississippi," generating upward of 160,000 pages of reports. It gave information to the police, many of whose officers belonged to the Ku Klux Klan. If the commission might have considered its activities technically, if whimsically, "legal," the Klan did not bother with such fine points; its tactics included bombings, kidnappings and murder, among other more run-of-the-mill forms of terrorism.

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Commission targets included Clyde Kennard, a black Korean War veteran whose crime against the state was to apply for admission at the all-white Mississippi Southern College (now the University of Southern Mississippi). Finding nothing to tar him with, the commission conspired to have him framed for the theft of $25 worth of chicken feed; he was sentenced to seven years at the notorious Parchman Farm prison. The commission's activities also led, in a not particularly roundabout way, to the 1964 deaths of voter-registration workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner; a map found later in its files suggests that the state knew where the bodies of the three men were buried well before an FBI investigation turned them up.

It may seem like old news to some — especially, perhaps, to those too young to remember when it was news. But only 50 years after the fact, it is worth recalling that there existed in Mississippi, under the protection of local laws and the indifference of much of the rest of the nation, a great apparatus dedicated to maintaining white supremacy, or "preserving a way of life," as its beneficiaries liked to say. "Message From Mississippi," an astonishing work of delusional contemporary propaganda seen here, tells the world that all is well in the Magnolia State: "Out of the statewide pattern of segregation, mutual respect and cooperation among the races has arisen a productive, law-abiding way of life."

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The voices heard in the documentary remind us that while there is a New South, even in Mississippi, the old guard has not yet passed. And Porter points out that it was not only white people who sought to maintain the status quo — commission informants included a few prominent black figures — or cooperated with or worked for the authorities, believing the situation to be permanently irredeemable.

It is, additionally, a story of breaking this story: Records of the commission — those that were not destroyed — were hidden away and declared sealed for 50 years, but were leaked in the late 1980s to an enterprising reporter, Jerry Mitchell of the Clarion-Ledger of Jackson, Miss. They led to some two dozen convictions, including that of the man who killed civil-rights leader Medgar Evers, Byron De La Beckwith.

No matter how many times you've seen the history documented, it remains eye-opening; no matter how many times you've heard it, it's worth hearing again.

robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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'Independent Lens: Spies of Mississippi'

Where: KOCE

When: 10 p.m. Monday

Rating: TV-PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children; advisory for coarse language)

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Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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