Anatomy of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission Investigation:
and the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission
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
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
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
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.
exhausting search isn't exhaustive!
beyond surface documents:
Never assume the records are lost.
Don't round up all the usual suspects.
Don't overlook oral histories.
Don't assume the first answer is the correct one.
the record to profile a property and its people
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
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
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