Newest information on Mississippi murders involving African Americans and/or Mississippi politicians and leaders.
on your site! Fast, Easy & Free! (El Movimiento por los Derechos Civiles en Estados Unidos)
The volume of information gathered from telephone and Internet communications by the National Security Agency without court-approved warrants was much larger than the White House has acknowledged, The New York Times
reports. While mention of Watergate and impeachment may pervade the holiday’s political ether, it is a familiar story when compared to revelations of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, a retired Civil Rights-era spy agency specifically created to maintain segregation and white supremacy.
Mississippi leaders, public and private, established the commission in 1956 to spy on citizens and deal with anyone, black or white, who challenged Jim Crow segregation. Former FBI and military intelligence gatherers and paid informers hired by the commission (including school superintendents, college officials, ministers, teachers and others, black and white) were used to hassle Civil Rights workers and individuals, the records show. Files were accumulated that violated individual privacy and that could be used to destroy and even kill those who advocated for social change; the commission was authorized 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.”
The actions of the Sovereignty Commission were secret and known to only a select few in state government, including the governor who was a commission member. It was a small agency with tremendous influence on the state -- its culture and politics in the late 1950s and 1960s. Nearly every county and town throughout the state was infiltrated but most citizens had no idea of the commission’s existence. Those who worked for voting rights were spied on and taken down. Outspoken academics, doctors who treated people who were brutally beaten by the Klan or police, ministers who registered voters, sympathetic journalists and so many others were watched and reported on. Their color often did not matter. If they tried to influence social change -- to bring down Jim Crow -- they were ruined. Driven out of the state or much worse.
The worse came as the commission documented the whereabouts, finances and sexual habits of civil rights leaders. Some of the information was fed to employers and the Ku Klux Klan. Untold numbers of people were fired and others beaten and perhaps even killed after becoming targeted by the commission‘s spies and investigators.
**Vernon Dahmer Sr. of Hattiesburg was probably a Sovereignty Commission victim; the commission’s files certainly reflect constant interest in the NAACP leader. In January 1966 two carloads of thugs tossed lighted Molotov cocktails into his home. Dahmer had announced earlier that day that poll taxes could be paid at his shop. Dahmer shot at the attackers while his family escaped, but Dahmer died of smoke inhalation later that day. Four men were convicted in the case while several others escaped trial. Former Klan Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers, believed to be the mastermind, was freed after two mistrials.
**The same day of Dahmer’s death, two Charleston women were murdered and mutilated by Klansmen as they returned home from a Jackson meeting with Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. Both women had Sovereignty Commission files; both were early voting rights advocates. The bodies of Birdia Keglar and Adlena Hamlett were both found decapitated. Hamlett, a retired teacher in her mid seventies, had both of her arms cleanly severed from her body, relatives and her minister say. The deaths were formally reported by highway patrolmen as resulting from a car accident. It was later determined by the FBI that dozens of Mississippi patrolmen, particularly in the Mississippi Delta, were also Klansmen.
**Hundreds of Sovereignty Commission records show continued spying on a white minister, Horace Germany, whose crime was to try and build a small, self-contained college for black missionary-ministers who would also be trained in agriculture. At graduation, students were to go into rural areas of the state and teach poor blacks how to feed their families. The Mississippi native was beaten nearly to death by Klansmen. Other of the Sovereignty Commission’s 132,000 pages made public shed light on the abuse of power by those in charge. For instance,
**The successful trial of Byron de la Beckwith, officially the man who murdered early civil rights hero Medgar Evers, finally came about in 1994, after two mistrials three decades earlier, when released Sovereignty Commission records revealed previous jury tampering by one of the commission’s agents. Evers, a 37-year-old NAACP field secretary who pushed for an end to segregation, had stepped out of his Oldsmobile when he was shot in the back on June 12, 1963. He was walking to his house with an armful of "Jim Crow Must Go" T-shirts.
**Another Sovereignty Commission report dated in March 1964 shows that one of Mississippi’s most ardent racists, W.J. Simmons, was able to get his hands on grand jury testimony about Evers that included “considerable information relative to the NAACP in Mississippi in this testimony.” Simmons, once tagged "extremist … even by Mississippi standards" by the New York Times, was considered the shadow ruler behind Governor Barnett who fought James Meredith’s entry into the University of Mississippi.
Years earlier, on September 18, 1959, commission records show that Simmons contacted the commission about an upcoming Southern Christian Ministers Conference of Mississippi that included Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. along with other speakers from around the country. Simmons wanted "these speakers coming here from out of the state … harassed as much as possible.”
Regular people were spied on, too -- ordinary, middle-class folks who sometimes were NAACP members back then. These were not front-line activists but were people like the parents of Ralph Eubanks, a native of Mount Olive Mississippi and director of publishing at the Library of Congress. Eubanks wrote about his early life in Mississippi and the later impact of learning that his parents were spied on. In Ever is a Long Time, Eubanks told how an internet search took him to the Mississippi chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union where he discovered an Orwellian list of the 87,000- names collected by the Sovereignty Commission during its existence. Included were the names of his parents: Warren Eubanks and Lucille Eubanks.
Eubanks recalled feeling physically ill when he discovered how close his own parents came to crossing the line. Both were quiet members of the NAACP through their church; they were not civil rights activists in any way, but just quiet people who wanted to see social change. When Eubanks returned to Mississippi in the late 1990s, he found an atmosphere that was still uneasy about his mixed marriage; he and his wife were mistreated in a bed and breakfast, once the innkeeper saw them together. Eubanks left his home state believing that little had really changed in the hearts and minds of white Mississippians.
In Mississippi there remain dozens of unexamined brutalities including the 1997 murder of Cleve McDowell, a civil rights attorney who was close to both Evers and Meredith. McDowell was the first black graduate student in Mississippi; he was admitted to the James O. Eastland School of Law just as Meredith was leaving “Ole Miss.” Twice I’ve been refused access to McDowell’s records by the district attorney in Sunflower County where McDowell was murdered, even though he had been dead for over five years. The law school has also refused sharing any of McDowell’s records, including a letter of recommendation by the dean after McDowell was kicked out.
But after pulling other records surrounding the crime and speaking to McDowell’s friends and associates, it is obvious there are many unanswered questions about his more recent death: McDowell’s best friend, a Montgomery, Alabama attorney, also born in Drew, Mississippi, was murdered three years before McDowell was killed. His death was reported a suicide but after speaking to half a dozen people in both states it is apparent that McDowell saw his friend’s body and realized this was not a suicide. McDowell, reporting evidence of torture, told a minister friend that he would be murdered next.
McDowell’s files that he stored in piles of boxes in his Drew officer over the years -- records he gathered for his own investigations on the murders of Emmett Till, Medgar Evers and others active in the Civil Rights Movement -- were burned in a fire during the same week the first batch of Sovereignty Commission files were released to the public in 1998, six months after McDowell was killed. Some suggest the fire was perhaps a ruse, used to steal McDowell’s records.
Mississippi’s past is too often its present; too many questions from the past remain unanswered. Too few racist attitudes have changed in this state that continues to suffer from horrific poverty, the poorest education and all of the accompanying results. But even worse, we seem to have a much larger sovereignty commission operating throughout our entire country. I only hope that we take heed from Mississippi’s mistakes. This must be our New Year's goal. The most important one of all.
* * *
Susan Klopfer is an author, journalist and blogger. The former Prentice-Hall editor is the author of two new civil rights books, “Where Rebels Roost, Mississippi Civil Rights Revisited” and “The Emmett Till Book.” She lived on the grounds of Parchman Penitentiary in the Mississippi Delta for two years while writing her books. Klopfer maintains blogs on Emmett Till, Murders Around Mississippi, and Voting Rights and is currently working on a book that focuses on Mississippi Delta cold case files. Her web page is at http://themiddleoftheinternet.com. She can be contacted by email at email@example.com and by telephone at 775-340-3585.
As it turned out, the FBI did investigate the brutal murder of the Rev. George Lee of Belzoni, and records show the agency built a circumstantial murder case against two men.
But a local prosecutor refused to take the case to a grand jury.
Peck Ray and Joe David Watson Sr., the suspects, were members of the small town's white Citizens Council and both died in the 1970s.
Interviewed by Newsday years later in 2000, Ernest White, a close friend of Lee's, said that he always suspected that Ray, a local handyman, and Watson, a gravel hauler, were involved in Lee's murder. "We suspected them because of their reputation," White told reporter Stephanie Saul.
Before Lee's murder, Watson had been arrested, but not convicted, for randomly shooting into a black sharecropper's home.
Some of Lee’s friends believed the murder was part of a larger conspiracy involving influential members of the community who wanted to silence Lee, who was encouraging blacks to register to vote.
"The big wheels paid them off," said White, who became a city councilman years after Lee's death.
The FBI released their investigation records to Newsday under the Freedom of Information Act. Many names in the records were marked out but reveal the FBI had named Watson and Ray:
"Witnesses saw two men leave a downtown street corner where they had been standing, enter Ray's green two-toned Mercury convertible just before the shooting, drive away and return shortly afterward. Several witnesses saw a convertible fitting that description following Lee with only its parking lights on.
One witness said the fatal shots were fired from such a car. But no one could identify the shooters," Saul reported.
The Newsday reporter also indicated that Ray had his convertible painted red following the shooting and that Watson’s pick-up had carried a sawed-off shotgun loaded with No. 3 buckshot – the same bullets used to kill Lee.
Further, Watson and Ray gave conflicting accounts of their activities that night," Saul reported.
Ray's wife told investigators that he had picked her up from the movie at about 11 p.m. and had gone home. But she could not remember the name of the movie.
Ray's daughter, Doris Dalton, told Saul she did not believe her father could have committed such a crime and that it was her idea to paint the convertible because she was taking it to college.
Agents had turned over evidence to the local prosecutor, Stanny Sanders, but held Watson's shotgun and shells for possible use in a trial. Sanders, who died in 1972, declined to prosecute.
An FBI memo in 1956 states that Sanders believed that while the investigation "conclusively demonstrates that criminal action was responsible for Lee's death, he does not believe the identity of the subjects is sufficiently established by usable evidence to warrant presentation to the grand jury."
Sanders told agents that a Humphreys County grand jury "probably would not bring an indictment, even if given positive evidence."
Sanders suggested that Belzoni settled down after Lee’s murder, and he believed it would harm race relations to reopen the matter. The U. S. Justice Department did not file civil rights charges because it could not substantiate allegations that Lee was killed because of voting rights activities.
"The 20-gauge double-barrel shotgun was personally returned to Watson by an FBI agent, the file notes. Also delivered were the two No. 3 buckshot shells obtained … with the gun."
That fall, political campaigns were negative, condemning voting initiatives and school desegregation efforts. The Citizens Council supported all five candidates for governor; and the state Democratic Party chair, Bidwell Adams, announced that blacks might be national Democrats, but they were not Mississippi Democrats.
"We don’t intend to have Negroes voting in this primary," Adams said. Few blacks would have supported any of the gubernatorial candidates, anyway, black leader Aaron Henry of Clarksdale later observed.
Brown II follows Lee's death
Shortly after Rev. Lee’s murder the Supreme Court handed down Brown II on May 31, 1955, ordering the South to proceed with integration "with all deliberate speed." The wording seemed harsh to many, as Brown II spoke plainly in reaffirming the first decision.
This time anger was higher than before and chaos reigned in many communities throughout the South, including the Mississippi Delta.
Three weeks later, the NAACP in Vicksburg filed a petition signed by 140 parents calling for "immediate steps to reorganize the public schools on a non-segregated basis."
The following week in Natchez, seventy-five parents filed a similar petition. Parents followed suit in Jackson and then within weeks, Delta parents in Clarksdale and Yazoo City joined the growing movement. It was a real act of courage for any parent to sign a petition, and NAACP leader Medgar Evers insisted that people know what they were signing and all possible consequences.
Evers, too, was later murdered and his widow, Myrlie Evers later wrote that parents were also assured they could remove their names if pressures became too great.
Black teachers were holding back in their support, afraid they would lose their jobs if identified with the movement. Myrlie Evers wrote.
Further, a problem existed for most black teachers because of their own inferior training. Few had advanced degrees or schooling outside of Mississippi. Some had no degree at all, and many black teachers soon lost their jobs.
Most school boards simply closed the matter, saying the petitions failed to meet certain requirements and presented them with nothing to take action upon. This advice, at least in Vicksburg, came from the state’s attorney general.
But white Citizens Councils did not see the situation as closed. New chapters quickly formed and in Yazoo City, the names, addresses, and telephone numbers of petitioners were listed in a paid advertisement in the Yazoo Herald as a "public service" of the Citizens Council of Yazoo City.
Myrlie Evers told how the toll of petitioners in Yazoo City quickly overcame any possibilities of change:
"Jasper Mims, treasurer of the local NAACP, had been a carpenter for thirty years. He had earned up to $150 a week. Months later he reported he had not had a call for work since the now-famous ad had appeared.
"The income of Hoover Harvey, a plumber whose customers were mostly white, was soon down to twenty dollars a week. Both Mims and Harvey removed their names from the petition, but there was no letup in the pressure."
Fifty-one of the fifty-three signatures on the petition were removed; two people who left the county for good didn’t stop to have their names taken from the list, and this was the story in most towns where the petitions were filed.
Medgar Evers drove from city to city, speaking at meetings and asking petitioners to hold firm.
But this was not to be, and the Jackson NAACP soon became a distribution point for food and clothing as petitioners around the state suffered. People told the NAACP they received threatening telephone calls or were put off their plantations; and they were having police, money, voting, and even marital problems.
Others killed as violence grows
The growing violence was not limited to the Delta. Lamar Smith was killed on a Saturday morning, August 13, 1955, in Brookhaven.
The sixty-year-old farmer and World War II veteran was handing out voting literature to blacks on the Lincoln County Courthouse lawn, in the home county of Judge Brady, author of Black Monday, when he was shot by a white man in broad daylight who was never officially identified although dozens of people watched the killing. No one would admit they saw a white man shoot a black man.
Smith, who had voted in the primary election eleven days earlier, was explaining to blacks how to vote by absentee ballot to avoid violence at the polls. He may have also been campaigning against a county supervisor.
The NAACP later blamed Citizens Councils for the murder in a pamphlet entitled M is for Murder and Mississippi.
Even though the murder occurred on Saturday morning when the courthouse square was normally filled with people, investigators said there were no witnesses to be found.
Historian John Dittmer observes that, "Although the sheriff saw a white man leaving the scene 'with blood all over him,' no one admitted to having witnessed the shooting," and "the killer went free."
Later, a white farmer, Noah Smith, was charged with murder in a warrant filed by J. J. Breland, a "courageous attorney."
Between the years of 1956 and 1959, Medgar Evers spent much of his time investigating racially motivated homicides. Officially, ten blacks were killed by whites in civil rights struggles in those years, and there were no convictions.
Evers’ job was to investigate, file complaints, issue angry statements, take reporters to crime scenes, issue press releases, and involve the federal government.
(Excerpt from Where Rebels Roost, Mississippi Civil Rights Revisited
, by M. Susan Klopfer.