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The Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission

The Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission: Civil Rights and States' Rights

Yasuhiro Katagiri
Copyright Date: 2001
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    The Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission
    Book Description:

    In 1956, two years after the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously outlawed legally imposed racial segregation in public schools, Mississippi created the State Sovereignty Commission.

    This was the executive agency established "to protect the sovereignty of the State of Mississippi . . . from encroachment thereon by the Federal Government." The code word encroachment implied the state's strong resolve to preserve and protect the racial status quo. In the nomenclature the formality of the word sovereignty supposedly lent dignity to the actions of the Commission. For all practical purposes the Sovereignty Commission intended to wage this Deep South state's monolithic resistance to desegregation and to the ever-intensifying crusade for civil rights in Mississippi.

    In 1998 the papers of the Commission were made available for examination. No other state has such extensive and detailed documentary records from a similar agency. Exposed to public light, they unmasked the Commission as a counterrevolutionary department for political and social intrigue that infringed on individual constitutional rights and worked toward discrediting the civil rights movement by tarnishing the reputations of activists. As the eyes of the citizenry studied the records, the Commission slid from sovereign and segregated to unsavory and abominable.

    This book, the first to give a comprehensive history of this watchdog agency, shows how, to this day, the Sovereignty Commission remains obscure, debated, and for many citizens a star chamber of the most sinister sort. Why was the Commission created? What were some of the political and social climates that initiated its creation? What were its activities during its seventeen years? What was its impact on the course of Mississippi and southern history?

    Drawing on the newly opened materials at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, this examination gives answers to such questions and traces the vicissitudes that took the Commission from governmental limelight to public opprobrium. This book also looks at the attitudes of the state's white citizenry, who, upon realizing the Commission's failure, saw the importance of a nonviolent accommodation of civil rights.

    Yasuhiro Katagiri, an associate professor of American history and government at Tokai University in Kanagawa, Japan, has been published in such periodicals asAmerican Reviewand49th Parallel: An Interdisciplinary Journal of North American Studies.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-032-6
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Preface
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xvii-xx)
  5. Introduction For the Purity of White Blood The Dixiecrat Revolt and the Creation of the Legal Educational Advisory Committee in Mississippi
    (pp. xxi-2)

    During the years of World War II, more than 237,000 Mississippians served in the armed forces, and among them, some 85,000 black Mississippians were in service to defend what President Franklin D. Roosevelt in early 1941 termed the “Four Freedoms”—freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear of armed aggression.¹ As a nation, the United States had roughly three million black men and women serving in the armed forces during the war, and approximately half a million of them went overseas. “Among the numerous adjustments the American people had to make at the end...

  6. Chapter 1 To Protect the Sovereignty of the State of Mississippi The Origins of the State Sovereignty Commission
    (pp. 3-35)

    On January 17, 1956, James Coleman was sworn in as the fifty-second governor of Mississippi. After Chief Justice Harvey McGehee of the Mississippi State Supreme Court administered the oath of office to Coleman, the state’s new chief executive began to deliver his inaugural address in the presence of the joint legislative assembly. Referring to his resolve to maintain “the continued separation of the white and negro races” in Mississippi, the governor proclaimed: “I say to this audience . . . that I have not the slightest fear that four years hence when my successor stands on this same spot to...

  7. Chapter 2 Fear of the Unknown Mobilizing Black Informants
    (pp. 36-63)

    True to the Supreme Court’s 1955 implementation decree inBrown, public school desegregation in the South proceeded “with all deliberate speed” in the latter half of the 1950s, and the Court’s words hardly affected the defiant posture adopted by Mississippi’s political leaders. While attending the National Governors’ Conference held in Williamsburg, Virginia, on June 23, I957 James Coleman appeared on NBC’sMeet the Pressand was asked whether the public schools in his native state would “ever” be integrated. “Well, ever is a long time,” the Mississippi governor replied, “{but} I would say that a baby born in Mississippi today...

  8. Chapter 3 To Maintain Segregation in Mississippi at All Costs Revitalizing the State Sovereignty Commission
    (pp. 64-94)

    From a humble beginning on a small farm in Leake County, Ross Barnett attended local public schools and went on to graduate from Mississippi College. After working for two years as principal of Pontotoc High School in north Mississippi, Barnett entered the University of Mississippi Law School. Upon graduation, he began his law practice in Jackson in 1926 and subsequently became the senior partner of a large law firm in the capital. A man with “a mixture of flamboyance and down-to-earth seriousness,” Barnett seldom failed in attracting and fascinating people around him with his “energy, rhetoric, and antics.”¹ On January...

  9. Chapter 4 The Greatest States’ Rights State Helping Ross Keep Mississippi Sovereign
    (pp. 95-139)

    In the late spring of 1961 Mississippi came face to face with a possible constitutional crisis over black civil rights. On May 4, seven whites and six blacks boarded Greyhound and Trailways interstate buses in Washington, D.C., and began traveling through the South. The previous year, the United States Supreme Court ruled inBoynton v. Virginiathat racial segregation in interstate travel facilities was unconstitutional, but the ruling had virtually been ignored in the South. Having been “aware of the Kennedy administration’s unwillingness to enforce” the Court’s decision, James Farmer, who became national director of the Congress of Racial Equality...

  10. Chapter 5 Feelings Run Deep and Blood Runs Hot Submerging the State Sovereignty Commission
    (pp. 140-175)

    During the summer of 1963, with the furor created by the Meredith crisis having not cooled down, Mississippi’s gubernatorial election inevitably revolved around racial segregation as the most pressing issue. In the Democratic primary, there were three major candidates: Lieutenant Governor Paul Johnson; former Governor James Coleman, who had defeated Johnson in the 1955 gubernatorial election; and Charles Sullivan, a former state district attorney who ran third in the 1959 governor’s race. The 1963 election also marked an important turning point in Mississippi politics because the state Republican Party, for the first time since the Reconstruction period, fielded a formidable...

  11. Chapter 6 Officially but Discreetly Dealing with Unreconstructed Forces
    (pp. 176-206)

    Having been influenced by Governor Paul Johnson’s moderation and having realized, though reluctantly, that Mississippi would face inevitable change in its race relations sooner or later, Sovereignty Commission Director Erie Johnston set out to calm the state’s troubled waters in the spring of 1964 while he dutifully kept his watchful eyes on the activities of the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO). On May 13, speaking before the Canton Rotary Club in Madison County, the director told his audience that the Sovereignty Commission had to bear the responsibility as the state’s “troubleshooting” agency. “Many times when a situation {racial trouble} arises...

  12. Chapter 7 The Last Hurrah Cracking Down on New Subversives
    (pp. 207-226)

    The significance of the 1967 gubernatorial election was that it represented the final gasp of overtly blatant racist appeal in the history of Mississippi’s statewide elections, making John Bell Williams become the last beneficiary of the state’s racial “hurrah.” However, once he assumed the governorship, Williams took over his predecessor’s law-and-order policies. “Because our State has been the focal point of a highly emotional issue in recent years, we are being examined more critically than other states,” the new governor told Mississippians in his inaugural address on January 16, 1968: “{W}e have within our society certain elements who apparently consider...

  13. Conclusion To Grapple with the Past From “Mississippi Burning” to “Mississippi Learning”
    (pp. 227-242)

    By vetoing the annual appropriation for the Sovereignty Commission in 1973 with a stroke of a pen, Governor William Waller terminated the seventeen-year-old state agency. But the 1956 act that created the Commission in the first place remained on the state’s law books until the spring of 1977. After the agency closed its doors on June 30, 1973, the six cabinets of the Commission’s official files were placed in the custody of Secretary of State Heber Ladner. The files were then stored in an underground vault at the state’s Vital Records Center located in Flora, Madison County.¹

    However, the “old...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 243-312)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 313-324)
  16. Index
    (pp. 325-348)