BILL MINOR: Mississippi spied on its citizens



Big Brother in the person of the National Security Agency has produced national outrage for its data-gathering on Americans. From both sides of the aisle in Congress come demands that NSA be throttled, no matter its 9/11 birthmarks.

How different was the reaction in Mississippi when a Magnolia-scented version of Big Brother was conceived and given birth by the Legislature at least twice to my own knowledge in the 20th century.

Fortunately, the two Big Brother episodes were short-lived. However, they did some nasty damage to certain individuals’ right of privacy. While NSA may not have any broad base of support, Mississippi’s versions of Big Brother – one created in 1947 and the other in 1956 – were calculated to stamp out a momentary menace posed by perceived “bad guys.”

Label the 1947 journey into Big Brotherism as “The MBI” (not to be confused with today’s bureau of investigation in the Mississippi Highway Patrol. Label the 1956 version as the “KGB of the Cotton Patches.” (I coined the latter name.) Officially, it was called the state Sovereignty Commission.

Maybe the MBI didn’t sound menacing – but it was created as a secret police agency, its membership known only to the governor. Along with five extreme laws, its creation was aimed at stamping out a statewide strike by unionized bus drivers. The strike, which had begun five months before Gov. Fielding Wright convened the November, 1947 special legislative session, had been marked by repeated violence, including gunshots fired into a bus station and dynamite sticks found outside the station. No one, however, had been wounded in the violence.

One law enacted at the session made it a death penalty to place any explosive in a bus or train station. Several lawmakers in both the House and Senate were so alarmed by Wright’s proposed measures that they branded the legislative package “Gestapo” tactics.

Postscript on the MBI episode: A year later Wright said the strike had been broken and he persuaded lawmakers to repeal the emergency legislation. As a result of the emergency session, Wright got lawmakers to establish the state Highway Patrol, and breaking the bus drivers’ strike marked the start of a downhill slide for unions in Mississippi.

The sorry era of the Sovereignty Commission’s amateurish spying on people – black and white – thought to be a threat to white supremacy, is one of those dark chapters most Mississippians would like to forget. Actually the segregation watchdog’s creation under Gov. J.P. Coleman in 1956 was pretty much a backdoor affair. Coleman, a moderate for his time in office, was besieged by the segregationist White Citizens’ Councils to take a stronger stand opposing any move by the federal government to undermine the state’s racial separation laws.

After warding off anti-civil rights measures pushed through the Legislature by the Councils, Coleman accepted the sovereignty commission bill on the theory he could control what the agency did by appointing most of its members and picking the commission’s staff employees. Until Coleman went out of office in 1960, his idea pretty much worked. But when Ross Barnett succeeded him, the CC was back in business in a big way.

Commission agents spied and eavesdropped on Hazel Brannon Smith, a white weekly newspaper editor from Lexington who agreed to print a little newspaper for young civil rights activists in Jackson when they could find no one else to print the papers. Smith, who had won a Pulitzer Prize for her moderate editorials in 1964, was later driven into bankruptcy because of her stance for racial compassion.

Gov. Paul Johnson, who followed Barnett, began tightening the reins on Sovereignty Commission activities. In the early 1970s, Gov, Bill Waller put the commission out of business by vetoing its appropriation.

The commission’s files containing hate-filled and often false, hearsay information on hundreds of people tracked by the spy group’s agents, had been sealed for 50 years by one federal judge in the 1980s, but ordered opened by Federal District Judge William Barbour in the latter 1990s. The Mississippi Department of Archives and history now has the files online.

Contact Bill Minor through Ed Inman:

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  • Lydia

    I am not sure what Mr. Minor would write about if he ever got over his paranoia.