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, the Alabama House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill setting up a procedure to pardon the Scottsboro Boys, nine black teenagers falsely accused of raping two white women on a train over eighty years ago. The bill, which had unanimously passed the Senate, now goes to Gov. Robert Bentley, who has said he will sign it.
For seven years, The Scottsboro Boys endured a series of trials they could not win. All but the youngest member of the group, whose ages ranged from 13 to 19, were sent to death row after false accusations from the women and convictions by all-white juries.The case became synonymous with racial injustice and set important legal precedents, including a Supreme Court decision that outlawed the practice of systematically excluding African Americans from juries.
According to the LA Times, “Advocates believe the bill is a chance to correct some of the injustices of a bleak period in the nation’s racial history as well as a chance to show that things are different in the modern South.”
This gesture by a community of legislators in 2013 is an important step for reconciliation, but I’d like to also bring attention to a community leader who showed bravery at the time of the trial: Rabbi Benjamin Goldstein of Beth Or in Montgomery, Alabama, who stood apart from the crowd and stood up for his beliefs about the mistreatment of the boys.
He was the only white clergyman to visit the so-called “Scottsboro Boys” in prison and was instrumental in connecting them to a team of lawyers from International Labor Defense, the legal arm of the American Communist Party, for the appeal trial. Upon seeing the northern Jewish lawyers, the prosecuting attorney exclaimed: “Alabama justice cannot be bought and sold with Jew money from New York.” On Yom Kippur in 1932, Goldstein defied intimidation and defended the Scottsboro boys in his sermon.
Words like those spoken by the prosecuting attorney and Goldstein’s persistence deeply troubled Beth Or’s board of trustees. Montgomery Mayor W. A. Gunter informed board members that if Goldstein did any more to assist in the Scottsboro trials, the Ku Klux Klan would organize a boycott of Jewish businesses in the city. Without permission, Rabbi Goldstein spoke publicly at a rally for the Scottsboro Boys. In April of 1933, Beth Or’s president Ernest Mayer informed Goldstein that he either had to quit his political activities or leave. Though two board members defended Goldstein, he presented his letter of resignation to the board the following day. Some confessed anonymously to the Montgomery Advertiser that they secretly sided with Goldstein. Nevertheless, Beth Or’s board published a press release declaring the congregation’s commitment to segregation.
The Scottsboro Boys’ legal team fought hard for many years to free the innocent men, but in the end could not overcome the systemic racism of the courts or the pervasive bigotry of the culture.
Rabbi Goldstein’s leadership, even his inevitable defeat, should remind us not to accept the status quo in our communities. These pardons, eighty years in the making, come too late for the lives of the Scottsboro Boys, and injustices persist in our judicial and penal systems to this day. May the actions of Rabbi Goldstein and all of those who fight for justice inspire us to struggle for equality and freedom, both for others and for ourselves.
Had you heard of the Scottsboro Boys? Did you know about Rabbi Goldstein’s outspoken defense of them?