Date: Tue, 17 Mar 1998 18:23:29 -0500
Mississippi unseals secret files on war against black civil rights
Agence presse francaise, 17 March 1998
JACKSON, Mississippi, March 17 (AFP) - Secret files from a segregation-era state spy agency were being unsealed here Tuesday in a move expected to shed new light on Mississippi authorities' fight against black civil rights.
The 132,000 pages from the activities of the East German Stasi-like Mississippi Sovereignty Commission (MSC) had been kept in a locked room of the basement of the Mississippi Department of Archives since the MSC was disbanded 21 years ago.
David Ingebretsen, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Unions (ACLU) who led a 20-year court fight to force the state to unseal the files, told AFP it would take several days, even weeks, to sift through and make sense of the information.
Other southern states had also established Sovereignty Commissions to resist court-ordered desegregation. But the MSC, founded in 1956, was reputed to be one of the most zealous in efforts to track down and discredit civil rights activists.
The MSC compiled files on 250 organizations and tens of thousands of people, including civil rights workers, college students, state government officials and others.
Citizens were paid 100 to 150 dollars for information. Black and white snitches infiltrated and sowed division within the civil rights movement.
"The agency spied on people, played dirty tricks on them and tried to do anything it could to disrupt the civil rights movement," Ingebretsen said.
Many in this Deep South state are comparing the reopening of this violent and tragic chapter in Mississippi history to the divisive trauma caused by the opening of East European security police files after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Information collected by the MSC was given to law enforcement officials, employers and also helped fuel the terror campaign by the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan, civil rights officials said.
White supremacists are believed to have perpetrated hundreds of attacks on civil right workers between the mid-1950's and the 1970's, particularly in Mississippi, where 15 murder cases are still unsolved, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
"Many people were damaged by the actions of the Sovereignty Commission," said Ingebretsen. "By opening the files, these people have a chance to seek justice. If illegal acts were committed against them, they can sue the state or the actors who performed those deeds."
Among those seeking justice are relatives of Vernon Dahmer, a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) leader who died of burns and smoke inhalation after Klansmen firebombed his home in Hattiesburg, southern Mississippi in 1966.
The Dahmer family hopes that opening the MSC files will lead to the conviction of top Klansman Sam Bowers, the man believed to be the mastermind behind the Dahmer slaying and other terror attacks in the 1960's.
A year after Dahmer's death, Bowers and six other Klansmen were convicted on federal conspiracy charges for killing three civil rights workers in 1964. He was jailed for six years in the 1970's.
Information from the MSC files had already led to the 1994 murder conviction of another Klansman, Byron de la Beckwith, more than 30 years after he ambushed and killed civil rights activist Medgar Evers.
Beckwith, now 77, is serving a life sentence in prison. The Evers slaying was the subject of the movie "The Ghosts of Mississippi".
Mississippi lawmakers had initially sought to destroy the files, then fought to keep them sealed until 2027. But a federal judge ruled in 1989 that the documents should be made public on March 17, 1998.