Charles Marsh recounts the formation and activities of The Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission.

In 1956, a new organization appeared, predisposed to the same political concerns articulated by the Citizen's Council, but now underwritten by the state legislature.  The Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission was formed to broaden the scope of protecting "the Southern Way of Life."(1)  The commission expressed purpose was "to do and perform any and all acts and things deemed necessary and proper to protect the sovereignty of the State of Mississippi, and her sister states, from encroachment thereon by the Federal Government"(2); nevertheless, it operated as "something akin to NKVD among the cotton patches," as journalist Wilson Minor put it.(3)  With an extensive surveillance network solidly in place, the Sovereignty Commission vigilantly monitored civil rights activists and any Mississippi citizens suspected of heterodoxy--"persons whose utterances or actions indicate they should be watched with suspicion on future racial attitudes."(4)  The commission pursued its ordained work by dispatching investigators and spies to gather information on civil rights workers, white liberals, and anyone else suspected of racial indiscretion.  By 1967, the commission had amassed an archive of more than ten thousand reports on people who worked for or represented "subversive, militant, or revolutionary groups."(5)  (By 1974, the files would grow to 87,000 names.) 

Although the Sovereignty Commission's principal motivation was "to prevent encroachment upon the rights of this and other states by the Federal Government" (as the charter stated), its obsession with racial purity could not be entirely explained by state's rights fervor.  The commission's agents seemed to spend as much energy tracking down reports of mixed-race babies and children as it did investigating the activities of subversive, militant and revolutionary groups.  Sadly, a reading of the available Sovereignty Commission files regarding rumors of interracial sex show us (in Adam Nossiter's words) "cool accounts of lives damaged, destroyed, or threatened because black men were suspected of consorting with white women."(6)

Then there are reports that are stranger than fiction.  In the case of the woman Louvenia K. and her two sons, Edgar and Randy Ed, the director of the commission himself, Erle Johnston, Jr., wrote an eight page, single spaced report in December of 1963 exploring the racial composition of the boys and their mother.  The complexity of the case--or better, the twisted nature of the investigation--makes the report almost unbearable to read.  At stake is the situation of the two boys, eight and nine years old, who had been turned away from the local white school because of questions regarding their racial identity.  Even though Louvenia told investigators that her family "had always considered themselves white, that they did not associate with Negroes and [that] she objected to Negro children attending white schools as much as any other white person," and even though her two boys were sandy-haired blondes, a mistaken reference to her as "colored" on her birth certificate sent school officials into a frenzy of racial panic.  Suffice it to say that sovereignty commission officials investigated every available past and present reference to Louvenia K.'s family in order to determine whether she was "colored", and if so, how much colored, and then to what percentage her sons were colored.  All this was critically important because, according to Mississippi law, if the sons were "1/8 Negro" or more, they would be considered black; if not more than "1/16 Negro," they would be considered white.

To insure that the investigation was conducted as thoroughly as possible, Director Johnston noted that he spent "considerable time studying" a historical novel called The Echo of the Black Horn, in which was contained a reference to "an unusual Mulatto with blue-green eyes" named Rachel, alleged to be the great grandmother of Louvenia no less--and thus the great-great grandmother of Edgar and Randy Ed.  The woman Rachel, about whom there apparently existed genealogical references in non-fictional sources, had been a slave of Newt Knight, a deserter from the Confederate army who founded the free state of Jones County--a county in Mississippi that seceded from the South after the South succeeded from the Union and fought against both the Confederate and Union armies.  As Erle Johnston reports, Rachel was the "villain" of the case, the one who "infused Negro blood into the white blood of the descendants of Newton Knight"--including Edgar and Randy Ed.  Johnston surveys the worst case scenario in breathtaking detail:  "If Rachel was pure Negro, then her son Jeff was a Mulatto, her grandson, Otho, was a Quadroon and her great grand-daughter, Louvenia, is an Octoroon, meaning that she is 1/8 Negro.  Following the same line one step further, any children of Louvenia, assuming that the descendants of Rachel all intermarried with [pure] white mates, would be exactly 1/16 Negro, which under Mississippi law would classify them as white.  If Rachel was not pure Negro, then Louvenia and her brothers and sisters by the same parents would be less than 1/8 Negro and the two sons, Randy and Edgar W. would be nearer 1/32.  A family tree outline is attached to and made part of this report."(7)

Although the commission concluded that the boys were legally white, the local school board had reached "a stalemate" in its own deliberations on the matter.  As a result, the two boys, who had attended less than one day of school during their entire lives, were left to help their parents raise chickens on the family's small farm in Jones County.


(1) The Citizens' Council primer for third and fourth graders explains this concept:  "God wanted the white people to live alone.  And He wanted colored people to live alone.  The white man built America for you.  White men built America so they could make the rules.  George Washington was a brave and honest white man....The white man has always been kind to the Negro....Negro people like to live by themselves.  Negroes use their own bathrooms.   They do not use white people bathrooms...This is called our Southern Way of Life."  [Cited in Nicholas von Hoffman, Mississippi Notebook (New York:  David White Company, 1964), p. 46]

(2)  Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission Charter.

(3)  Cited in John Dittmer, Local People, p. 64.  Wilson F. Minor, Interview, July 22, 1994.

(4)  Cited in Calvin Trillin, "State Secrets," The New Yorker, May 29, 1995, p. 55.

(5)  Cited in John Dittmer, Local People, p. 60.

(6)  Adam Nossiter, Of Long Memory: Mississippi and the Murder of Medgar Evers (New York:  Addison-Wesley Publishing, 1994), p. 99.

(7)  Erle Johnston, Jr., Sovereignty Commission files, December 12, 1963, University of Southern Mississippi, McCain Library (emphasis mine).

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