The Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission was created in 1956 to fight against racial integration. An arm of Mississippi’s state government, the commission investigated the efforts of civil rights groups and activists who posed a threat to the “Mississippi way of life.” When the commission was formally disbanded in 1977, the state sealed its records for fifty years. But a lawsuit sponsored by the ACLU eventually forced the state to open the records to researchers in 1998.
The Sovereignty Commission papers offer a unique look into the state’s efforts to combat the forces of racial progress. But they also offer moments of comic relief, such as when the commission sent two of its investigators to spy on the 1960 regional B’nai B’rith Youth Organization (BBYO) convention at the Sun-N-Sand Motel in Biloxi.
A man named N.C. Wingo of Jackson had contacted officials at the Sovereignty Commission and informed them about the meeting, accusing BBYO of being a secretive radical subversive group. According to declassified documents, officials at the Sovereignty Commission had never heard of BBYO and sent two of their top investigators to spy on this convention.
The investigators’ six-page report manages to be both chilling and humorous at the same time. The manager of the Sun-N-Sand led the investigators to a spot where they could secretly eavesdrop and watch the proceedings. Anyone who has ever attended or chaperoned a Jewish youth group event can picture what the report describes: “For the first several minutes, there was so much noise that we could not distinguish anything that was being said…these youth sang songs and a general party atmosphere prevailed.” The investigators added, “we could observe nothing or hear nothing that indicated that they were advocating subversion, integration or anything of a communistic nature.” Eventually, the agents realized that the meeting was likely just “a group of Jewish kids…with no intentions of doing anything other than having a good time.” They even admitted that the kids seemed better behaved than the average group of teenagers. Nevertheless, they stayed through the entire convention to see if they could overhear anything that was “detrimental to our form of government.”
The group consisted of 300 young Jews between the ages of 14 and 18 from Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Tennessee. The investigators acquired a partial list of conference participants, and also took copies of all the pamphlets and literature that was distributed during the meeting, which they pored over for any sign of radicalism. Apparently, the bulletin of the Bluff City BBG (B’nai B’rith Girls) chapter from Memphis contained a few suspicious articles. One reported that the group had celebrated United Nations Day (a suspect organization from the perspective of the Sovereignty Commission). The bulletin also reported that the group held a program on the topic of intermarriage, though the investigators noted that this referred to religious and not racial intermarriage, and that the girls had concluded that they would not date non-Jews.
The commission agents concluded that the group offered no threat to segregation, though they did admit that for the thirty-minute minyan held each morning they were unable to observe or listen to the proceedings. As the agent reported, “I am very unfamiliar with this organization and the Jewish religion. I have no idea what this ‘Minion’ is, but I do know that they held it in small groups of approximately ten…in the private rooms of individuals at the motel.” While this daily small group meeting seemed suspicious to the agents, they could find no clear evidence of subversion during the BBYO meeting.
This Sovereignty Commission report raises several interesting issues. The first is the absurd nature of the assignment and the “keystone cops” aspect of the Sovereignty Commission. BBYO was certainly not a major player in the civil rights movement. Yet, the national organization of B’nai B’rith was on record as supporting the movement. In 1956, the president of B’nai B’rith urged all members to support desegregation as a human rights issue. And the B’nai B’rith’s Anti-Defamation League (ADL) was, and remains, an outspoken opponent of racial prejudice.
What is especially notable is that this report seems to be more the exception than the rule. I have not been able to find any other example of a Sovereignty Commission investigation of a Jewish organization, despite the fact that several Mississippi rabbis were outspoken supporters of racial equality. In fact, Mississippi Jews make relatively few appearances in the commission files. Many southern Jews feared that Jewish civil rights workers from the North would threaten the acceptance southern Jews enjoyed. But as the Sovereignty Commission files indicate, Mississippi’s white supremacist government made key distinctions between local Jews and “outside agitators.”
Except for that time they spied on BBYO.
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June 12 marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Medgar Evers, the first NAACP field secretary for the state of Mississippi and an important leader in the Civil Rights Movement.
Evers’ name has been prominent lately. In addition to the upcoming anniversary, his widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams, delivered the invocation at President Barack Obama’s second inauguration. An article by Jerry Mitchell on the aftermath of Medgar Evers’ assassination by white supremacist terrorists was featured this week in USA Today. Jackson, Mississippi newspaper The Clarion-Ledger also plans to re-publish a 1963 short story on the assassination that was written by Eudora Welty.
In honor of Medgar Ever’s accomplishments and sacrifice, The Medgar and Myrlie Evers Institute is sponsoring several commemorative events. Today in Washington, D.C., there will be a memorial service at Arlington National Cemetery (10:30 a.m) and a symposium on his legacy at the Newseum (7:30 p.m.) Events continue in Jackson, Mississippi, tomorrow through Sunday. If you are in or near either city, please view the full schedule and consider attending one or more of the ceremonies.
As we each find our freedom bound up in the freedom of others, we should take this opportunity both to celebrate the brave accomplishments of those who came before us and to mourn the loss of Medgar Evers and other activists who sacrificed their lives in the name of freedom. Now is a good time to ask: What have we done and what can we still do to pursue justice, freedom and equality, for ourselves and, most importantly, for others?
Last week, I had the unique experience of driving to Demopolis, Alabama, (the recent subject of a Forward article about disappearing Jewish communities—read my response as well) to speak about the history of one prominent Jew who was born there: Arthur Mayer. An important film industry innovator, Arthur didn’t spend very long in Demopolis. His father died just three months after his birth in 1886, and his mother moved with her infant to New York City. Yet the Southern Literary Trail, based in Alabama, claims Mayer as a native son, and they asked me to come speak about his career in the movie business and his roots in Demopolis.
Arthur’s uncle Morris Mayer came to the small Alabama town just after the Civil War in 1866. Like so many other Jewish immigrants who came South during that era, Mayer opened a dry goods store. Morris’s brothers Simon and Ludwig joined him in Demopolis in the 1870s. By one historian’s account, the Mayer brothers owned the most successful retail business in West Alabama. In 1897, they constructed a magnificent three-story brick building to house their thriving business. Tragically, Simon never saw this grand edifice, dying in 1886. Soon after Simon’s death, his wife and children left Alabama, leaving their relatives to run the business. Arthur Mayer grew up with his grandparents in New York City, and later said, “the smartest thing I ever did in my life was I left Demopolis at the age of three months.”
Mayer ended up working in the burgeoning film industry during the early 20th century. While he worked for such moguls as Samuel Goldwyn and Adolph Zukor, Mayer came from a very different background. The men who created the modern film industry were almost to a man immigrant Jews. Men like Goldwyn, Zukor, Louis B. Mayer (no relation to Arthur), and the Warner Brothers craved respectability, and wanted to leave their immigrant past behind. According to Neil Gabler, in his book An Empire of Their Own, “they wanted to be regarded as Americans, not Jews. They wanted to reinvent themselves here as new men.” They left any vestiges of the old world behind. The best example of this was Louis B. Mayer, who was born in Russia, though he claimed he had forgotten where and when. Later, he would embrace the 4th of July as his birthday.
Arthur Mayer was different. He was American born (albeit to immigrant parents). He didn’t enter the film industry after working in the glove or fur business. Mayer went to Harvard, where he majored in history and English literature at a time when Jewish students were subject to a restrictive quota. After graduating, he used his connections to get a meeting with a leading banker in New York, who sent a letter of introduction to Sam Goldwyn, who hired Mayer right away. It’s somewhat ironic that Mayer used his elite, Harvard network to get a job in the upstart Jewish film industry.
The most famous book about southern Jews is entitled The Provincials, written by Eli Evans. The idea of the southern Jew as provincial is a powerful one, and has helped mark southern Jews as distinct from Jews who lived in a place like New York. But the term “provincial” did not apply to Arthur Mayer, though perhaps it did to men like Zukor and Goldwyn, who came from Europe and often spoke in accented English. In his memoir, Merely Colossal, Mayer relates several wonderful stories about these men, playing up their malapropism, or as Mayer wittily calls it, their “trenchant misstatements.” Goldwyn was known for saying things like “include me out,” or “a verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.” Mayer tells the story of how Goldwyn was trying to produce a film based on the play “The Captive,” but was warned it would be controversial because one its main characters was a lesbian. Goldwyn retorted, “we’ll get around that, we’ll just make her an American.”
Mayer later went to work as head of publicity, advertising, and promotion for Adolph Zukor at Paramount. Mayer was a great salesman, though he sometimes got into trouble with his boss for his advertising campaigns. Once, Mayer tried to advertise the first film starring Mae West by using the word “lusty” on the poster. His efforts to convince Zukor that he meant the word in terms of “lust for life” not its sexual connotations were unsuccessful, even though English was not Zukor’s native language. Perhaps the alluring picture of Mae West on the poster undercut Mayer’s argument.
Later, Mayer became the operator of the Rialto Theater in Times Square in New York City, where he specialized in showing what he called the “three M’s”: mystery, mayhem, and murder. They were called “B Movies,” because they didn’t have A-level stars or directors. When Mayer got the film reels at the Rialto, he couldn’t change the cast or the movie itself, but, using his salesman instincts, he could change the name of the movie on the outside marquee to attract more customers. To the bland title “A Son Comes Home,” Mayer added the phrase “From Gangland.” “Fit for a King,” became “Murder Fit For a King.”
Mayer is an interesting figure. He was not just the king of B movies, but he also became one of the first and most important importers of fine European films. Most notable was the Italian film The Bicycle Thief, which was recently ranked as the 6th greatest film of all time by the film magazine Sight and Sound. Although he often lost money on these foreign films, Mayer believed in them as art and continued to bring them over, helping to create the American market for foreign films.
Arthur Mayer was a hybrid of lowbrow and highbrow culture. He was also native southerner who epitomized northeastern, Ivy League educated sophistication. And yet, Mayer was a Jew working in an overwhelmingly Jewish industry. While his story differs from those of the more famous men he worked for, people like Goldwyn and Zukor, Arthur Mayer is an important figure in his own right, who deserves to be remembered.