From IRE's 1993 convention in St. Louis. (Working on getting the author)
 
 
Medgar Evers and the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission
Anatomy of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission Investigation:

The tip came to The Clarion Ledger in March 1989 that some of the sealed records of the Sovereignty Commission had accidentally been filed in the open file.

Those records showed that the commission had an informant who infiltrated Jackson's COFO (Council of Federated Organizations) office. Once inside, the informant stole documents and photos of incoming Freedom Summer volunteers.

A source hinted that some of the records shed light on the "Mississippi Burning" case.

One source gave me the information from the records and another independent source confirmed that the state had spied on Mickey Schwerner and his wife three months before the Ku Klux Klan killed Schwerner and two other civil rights workers in Neshoba County in 1964.

The commission also circulated the license number of the station wagon that the trio drove. It was that license number that prompted Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price to stop the car.

The story ran Sept. 10, 1989.

Sources then shared that the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission secretly assisted Beckwith's defense in his second trial in 1964 by screening the backgrounds, racial beliefs, and ethnic makeup of potential jurors.

"Believed to be Jewish. No further information available," the commission reported about one potential juror.

Those recommended by the commission made the jury; those criticized did not.

At first, sources shared the information. Next, they shared the actual documents leading to a follow up story.

The revelations caused Myrlie Evers, the Jackson City Council, the Mississippi NAACP and the newspaper itself to call for the case to be reopened.

Sources provided copies of the actual documents for a story that showed the state in 1958 spied on Medgar Evers, trying to catch him in an illegal act.

A source provided The Clarion Ledger with more than 2,300 pages of sealed commission documents.

Those documents made up a Sunday package of stories on the commission, including a story on The Clarion Ledger itself, showing that the newspaper in the 1950s and 1960s regularly printed propaganda and killed stories at the commission's request.

Through copies of commission records obtained, The Clarion Ledger reported about Clyde Kennard, who sought to be the first black student to attend the University of Southern Mississippi.

The records showed that Kennard's arrest for liquor in his car was a frame up by local authorities.

The college has since renamed a building after Kennard.

HOW TO CONDUCT A HISTORICAL INVESTIGATION

On beating dead horses...

Why on Earth would anyone sift through old records for today's journalism?

  • The horse may not be as dead as you think it is.
    • Example: Indian treaties, tax laws and casinos
  • Historical background can shed light on modern motives.
    • Examples: Mining rights on government land, salt mine collapse, land transactions
  • Historical background can illustrate or uncover potential problems.
    • Example: Love Canal and other dumps
  • If you knew precisely what to look for, you wouldn't have to look.
    • Example: The element of surprise and the slum landlords of Canal Street.

The most exhausting search isn't exhaustive!
  1. Never assume the records are lost.
  2. Don't round up all the usual suspects.
  3. Don't overlook oral histories.
  4. Don't assume the first answer is the correct one.
Going beyond surface documents:
Divine into the record to profile a property and its people

When standard documentation (an agency environmental report, for example) isn't enough, there are things a reporter can do to reconstruct a property and its people through time.

  • Tax maps, at county or municipality level, can yield names.
  • County or municipalities atlases, sometimes prepared for cities by insurance agencies, can yield sketches of the building's plot footprint and occasionally data (intended for firefighters) on structural materials and/or number of floors.
  • Given an owners name, crosschecks with city directories may yield info on occupations, other household members, possible relatives with same surname; checking other nearby occupants can provide a word-picture of a neighborhood and social stratum.
  • Mortgage and deed records yield a history of the individual property, over time: Title search companies have resources similar to, and in some cases better than, county records (in areas where title searches, not just title insurance, remains the norm for deed transfers).
  • Owners aren't always occupants and sometimes the listed owner is just a front for someone else. Check the tax records, water, and other utility records to see who's paying the bills. Follow up on the billing addresses.
  • Interviews. What do neighbors know, what do descendants know?
  • How do you find descendants? Obit/death notices, tracking downward as genealogists do, searching phone books for surname contacts, newspaper files, biographical encyclopedia, cemetery records.
  • Don't overlook your own and rival newspaper morgues, or library newspaper files. They may provide vital info on specific events, but this can be time consuming unless you have a definite time frame.
  • Don't neglect pictorial information. Are there old photo files (commercial photography, aerial views of an overall area, etc.) that can provide visual info? Who has them? Town historians, libraries, photo studios, archives, agencies or companies that have done aerial surveys (for example, Corps of Engineers wetlands studies, utility work documentation, agriculture surveys, etc.)
  • Find out what archives and university collections might have documents or information relating to your story. Check with the Library of Congress.
  • Get to know those familiar with archives and university collections, whether employees, independent researchers or historians. They represent the quickest way for you to ascertain what records say and where they are.
  • Search NEXIS, newspaper articles, magazine articles, or books for any relevant information on your story. In books, be sure to check the index to learn where the original information was derived.
  • Visit stores that sell rare books. In addition to the publications, the people who operate them are often some of your best sources.
  • In addition to rare books, some people actually peddle authentic ancient documents, although often at a premium price. The Clarion Ledger found some copies of documents of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, a state funded propaganda and spy agency, this way through old Highway Patrol reports.
  • Check relevant court records, both open and sealed. If records are sealed, try to develop sources to learn what is contained in the records. In cases where you cannot get the actual documents, you may have to use independent sources to piece together what is in the records
  • If necessary, file litigation to open sealed records.
  • In early 1989, The Clarion Ledger found in university papers copies of some records of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission. They were contained in a governor's papers, which were part of the public record. In that case, the newspaper sued and won the right to see them.
  • Once you have the documents or information, interview as many as possible who either played a role in the story or have information about the story.
  • Go to the scene. There's no better way to get a feel for what happened, even if it concerns something as ancient as a Civil War battle, by going to where it actually took place.
  • In historical investigations, there may be differences in whom to believe. Use your best judgment in trying to determine what really happened. In the case of the records of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, our general rule was to put more trust in those who were victims of spying rather than the documents, which sought to discredit civil rights activists and often reported half truths and rumors as facts.
  • Establish a goal for what you would like to accomplish with the story. Should the story seek to elicit change? Or does it provide enlightenment or new understanding? In many cases, the follow up stories are as important as the initial stories. In the Medgar Evers case, the revelation that the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission had secretly assisted the defense of white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith prompted prosecutors to reopen the case. On February 5, Beckwith was convicted of the June 12, 1963 assassination of Evers.


More Tips
  • Interviewing techniques. Many of the sources of personal information will have fading memories of events that occurred years or decades earlier.
  • Use photographs to help prompt memories. They don't have to be photographs that directly relate to the subject you're investigating. Photographs of the time period from magazines or newspapers, or family pictures will help stimulate memories.
  • If possible, take your interview subject to the scene where an important event occurred. This will also help prompt some memories.
  • Use a tape recorder for all interviews. Even though the interviews may be of little use, they can be a wonderful archive for other researchers when you are done; especially when you are dealing with historical information that has been passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth.
  • Because a source said it doesn't mean it's true, particularly if it happened years ago. Most of us have interviewed eyewitnesses to tragedies just after they took place. Already their recollections can be faulty. Multiply this by decades, and you have real problems. Use public records and other documents to verify whenever possible.
  • You may want to test your subject's memory by asking some simple questions they should know off hand. "Your mother was born in 1917, right?" "You bought this house in 1956?"
  • FBI files. They probably exist for people that you didn't expect. Ask for them.
  • Military intelligence. The U. S. Army spied on Civil Rights leaders for decades. They may have some information of use, but don't count a lot on it. Just the fact that they had files on your subject may be of some use, however.

TV INVESTIGATIONS

Documents
The presentation of historical documents on TV provides journalists with a unique set of problems and opportunities. We advise the following:

  • Historical documents generally are best presented without the standard set of TV special effects. Avoid having historical documents spin out of electronic boxes or appear in other overproduced context. If the document has any power, viewers will want to see it as it really is.
  • Historical documents are frequently kept in visually interesting places. Design your shooting plan to maximize your ability to capture that visual context.
  • It's important to find an interesting person to go along with your historical document (relatives, descendants, curators, etc.) For some reason, most TV reporters still present documents isolated from a human context. It's much better to have an interesting character talk about a document than it is to simply show it with accompanying narration.
  • While it's logical and prudent to seek documents from traditional sources, the best sources frequently are the descendants of the people you are investigating.


Reportorial Role

Sometimes it works to have reporters become characters in televised historical investigations. Reporters can take you on voyages of discovery which can make even the search for a document a logical part of the story.

Re-creations

Re creations are a sore point with many journalists. But, in a historical context, re-creations seem less controversial. There's no danger a re-creation will be confused with the real thing in a historical context.

Archival Pictures

If your investigation only goes back a hundred years or so, you can greatly benefit from the use of archival material (old films, still photos, etc.). But be careful. Some "rights" issues can cause big problems for the producer of a historical investigation. Archival material can also be extremely expensive. It's not unusual for a one hour documentary cleared for national or international broadcast to have an archival budget of $30,000 or more.