If you read my memoir, you know my father was Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett’s personal attorney. We were led to believe the job largely entailed persuading the governor to do the right thing and not start a second Civil War. We understood our father was for segregation, but he was also against violence. Everything he did was legal.
Last week, I watched Spies of Mississippi, a documentary* by Dawn Porter (Gideon’s Army). In 1956, in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education (forbidding segregation in public schools), the Mississippi legislature created the Sovereignty Commission, an agency established to maintain separation of the races. This commission was given a budget and set up a network of spies, investigators, and double agents, gathering information on anyone supporting integration.
I watched, horrified all over again by the state of my state, when my father appeared on the screen. There he sat, at a meeting of the Sovereignty Commission, pocket square in place, smiling, smoking a cigarette, the genial center of an unheard conversation, as handsome as I remembered.
My father Tom Watkins is on the left, Ross Barnett on the right. It was as if a ghost walked into the room—a not so innocent ghost.
Information gathered by the Sovereignty Commission was turned over to local police and county sheriffs, half of whom were Klan members (The Klan returned with a vengeance in the 1960s and began a campaign of bombings). Everyone was intimidated. This was a time of fear and almost unbelievable thought control. When covert information entered the hands of the Klan, any violence that followed was considered collateral damage.
Under Ross Barnett, the Sovereignty Commission assumed its most malignant form, becoming the Stazi of Mississippi. As civil rights became a real movement, the Commission redoubled their efforts: hiring more agents, tapping phones, producing 160,000 pages of reports.
During Freedom Summer of 1964, three young civil rights workers, Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner, set out to investigate a church burning in Longdale, in Neshoba County, Mississippi. The Meridian police and the sheriff’s department were given their whereabouts and their license plate by the Sovereignty Commission. When the young men disappeared, a massive FBI-led manhunt began. Then Governor Paul Johnson called it a hoax. The three men were in Cuba, smoking cigars with Castro.
The bodies were discovered, hidden in a landfill. The young men had been pulled over, kidnapped and executed. The entire country was outraged. Governor Johnson realized the Sovereignty Commission was indirectly responsible for these deaths and stopped the meetings.
The Commission’s death knell arrived in 1965, with passage of the Voting Rights Act. The 160,000 pages of records, showing efforts to thwart voting rights, must be gathered and stored in a secret place for 50 years.
When a judge ordered the sealed files opened, a hand-drawn map was found, showing where the three men were buried. The Commission (and my father?) knew they were dead and where they were long before the bodies were discovered.
Until passage of the Patriot Act and subsequent NSA surveillance, the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission was the largest domestic spy agency ever known.
* Spies of Mississippi is also a book by Rick Bowers, who did much of the research for the film