"There's America, there's the South and then there's Mississippi,"
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
Commission targets included Clyde Kennard, a black
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."
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.
'Independent Lens: Spies of Mississippi'
When: 10 p.m. Monday
Rating: TV-PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children; advisory for coarse language)