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Biloxi wade-in, 1963
On June 23, 1963, Black and white demonstrators, under arrest, walk off the beach at Biloxi, Miss., after staging unsuccessful attempt to desegregate the Gulf Coast beach. The group was led by Dr. Gilbert Mason, center foreground, and white minister the Rev. R.G. Gallagher, third in line with shorts. The National Register of Historic Places now includes the office of Mason, an African-American physician who pushed to desegregate beaches on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Photo by AP Photo/Jim Bourdier

The Vestiges of Jim Crow and the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission

My father Le’Roy Carney was a 12-year-old Boy Scout—and one of the protesters who participated in the 1960 “Bloody Wade-In” in Biloxi, Miss. My dad was also a member of the Biloxi Youth NAACP. Local physician and civil rights leader Dr. Gilbert Mason organized the coordinated efforts to integrate segregated coastal beaches. 

In 1960, Dr. Mason led a group of 125 Black protesters and community leaders into the segregated waters of Biloxi’s beach. White attacks on the protesters followed in what is still one of the bloodiest race riots in Mississippi history, along with 71 arrests and dozens critically injured.

The Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, a state-funded spy agency charged with resisting integration and civil-rights activity, actively surveilled these civil rights activists and allowed law enforcement agencies to openly violate their constitutional rights in Jim Crow Mississippi. 

Those were dangerous times that still affect my family today. 

James Chaney tombstone
White supremacists killed Meridian civil-rights activist James Chaney in 1964 because he was trying to help fellow Mississippians register to vote. Photo by Donna Ladd

The level of voter suppression, and efforts to increase it, that we see today across the U.S. and in Mississippi, is a microcosm of the larger issue of race and the failure of our democracy to root out the fundamental principles of state-sanctioned terrorism that long targeted American Descendants of Slavery (ADOS) and civil rights leaders and protesters. The Mississippi Sovereignty Commission led an extended campaign to suppress Black voters in Mississippi, helping lead to the deaths of Medgar Evers in Jackson; Vernon Dahmer in Hattiesburg; and James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michaelf Schwerner in Neshoba County, and attacks on and deaths of too many others. 

Our politics are leading to deaths of activists and protesters still today.

From Brown v. Board to ‘Confederate Heritage Month’

Elected officials have always been complicit with law enforcement and the suppression of Black Americans’ civil rights, and nowhere in the U.S. more than in Mississippi where white supremacy and Jim Crow laws were explicitly built into our 1890 Constitution through the “Mississippi Plan.”

The Mississippi Legislature created the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission in March 1956 in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s May 1954 Brown v. Board of Education desegregation ruling calling for schools to integrate “with all deliberate speed.”

Mississippi responded to Brown v. Board with legislation, and a commission filled with spies, that would strengthen the walls of separation. Gov. James P. Coleman of Choctaw County enlisted local, county, and statewide law enforcement agencies to surveil and to intimidate civil rights activists throughout Mississippi. The white backlash that followed the Brown ruling resulted in countless lynchings and murders of Black Americans with the help of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission and its investigators’ “intelligence” reports of even the smallest efforts at integration. 

Activists like Fannie Lou Hamer, Medgar Evers and Dr. Gilbert Mason felt the ramifications of these lynchings, used as a terrorism to instill fear even as they demanded the right to vote and to integrate public spaces.

Parallels Between Voter Suppression and State Terror

The parallels between the state-sponsored terror that was allowed to persist via the Sovereignty Commission and the current police violence that has been committed against ADOS—like Breonna Taylor and Tamir Rice—have paved the way for white supremacists to infiltrate our halls of government. In his book “A Race Against Time,” reporter Jerry Mitchell challenged journalists to expose the truth “as best we can determine it by the evidence we find through the interviews we do.” Many of the stories of slain family members during the civil rights era as well as the family of Robert Loggins, who recently died in police custody in Mississippi, may never be told.  

Gov. Tate Reeves spoke to the Sons of Confederate Veterans in Vicksburg, Miss., in July 2013. Photo by R.E. Lee Camp 239 SCV Facebook group 

Gov. Tate Reeves recently appeared on a FOX News panel displaying his insensitivity toward ADOS and other marginalized communities in Mississippi by saying “America is not racist.” Senior Reporter Ashton Pittman of the Mississippi Free Press recently reported on the inconsistencies of the governor’s statements. Gov. Reeves continues to support policies that can suppress Black voters in Mississippi. 

This comes on the heels of Gov. Reeves issuing a proclamation to recognize April as Confederate Heritage Month. The Mississippi Department of Public Safety was closed in reverence to the “holiday” of Confederate Memorial Day. Secretary of State Michael Watson, who has the responsibility of overseeing elections and voting in Mississippi, also doubled down on his “woke and uninformed voters” comments by supporting legislation like HB-586 and other suppressive bills that would limit early voting and purge Black voters in Mississippi. 

Media Misinformation Leads to Racial Violence

The media have historically played a huge role in the misinformation that supports the ideologies that fueled the Sovereignty Commission’s policies toward Black Mississippians. Journalists were reluctant to report or follow up on these heinous crimes, or weren’t allowed to by racist media owners and editors

Freedom Summer of 1964 followed the Bloody Wade-Ins. Medgar Evers was one of the Sovereignty Commission’s primary targets, assassinated by White Citizens Council member Byron De La Beckwith. Today’s Council of Conservative Citizens is a reincarnation of the Citizens Council, which openly pushed biological superiority of white people, even using its mailing lists when it formed. The investigators of the Sovereignty Commission were unable, or unwilling, to solve the Ku Klux Klan murders of civil rights activists and their families.

Medgar and Merlie Evers were civil-rights activists who fought against voter suppression in Mississippi. Courtesy Evers Family

The level of targeted violence toward ADOS and Black Americans are eerily tied to the state-sanctioned violence that our elected leaders in Mississippi voted for and created before and during Jim Crow. Both political parties are out of touch with the urgency to pass federal anti-ADOS hate-crime legislation in America, even though Black Americans are historically more likely to be victims of hate crimes in the United States. Members of both parties expedited the Anti-Asian American Hate Crime legislation through Congress, but the Dyer Anti-Lynching legislation that was first introduced in 1918 still has not been voted into law. 

In 2009, James Byrd became one of the namesakes of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act—a federal law expanding hate-crime legislation to include crimes motivated by gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability. Sadly, federal prosecutors pursued only 100 hate crimes nationwide between January 2010 and July 2018. Half of those cases involved racially motivated violence against Black Americans—more than any other group. Sen. Rand Paul has held up the revised Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act in the U.S. Senate since June 2020. 

Activists in Mississippi are continuing to advocate for the civil rights of American Descendants of Slavery across the state and others who are organizing community leaders to be politically active. We are lobbying lawmakers for a similar disagreggation of ethnic data that will help set a precedent for a national cultural designation. The Mississippi Sovereignty Commission and its legacy have had a violent impact on ADOS communities and a long-lasting effect on the trajectory of civil rights in America. 

This MFP Voices essay does not necessarily represent the views of the Mississippi Free Press, its staff or board members. To submit an essay for the MFP Voices section, send up to 1,200 words and factcheck information We welcome a wide variety of viewpoints.

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