Miss. files reveal fight to preserve segregation Agency used spying, intimidation to thwart rights activists; 21-year legal battle ends


JACKSON, Miss. -- After a 21-year court fight, the state of

Mississippi yesterday unsealed more than 124,000 pages of previously secret files from a state agency that used spy tactics, intimidation, false imprisonment, jury tampering and other illegal methods to thwart the activities of civil rights workers during the 1950s, '60s and early '70s.

Like an eerie journey into a shadowy past, the files of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission provide a profoundly unsettling reminder of the state's determination to maintain a segregated society.

The commission's investigators made note of the pigmentation, associations, religious beliefs and sexual proclivities of the civil rights workers they tracked. They jotted down the license plate numbers of cars parked at civil rights meetings and peeked into bank accounts. Informants, many of them black Mississippians, reported to the commission about plans for marches and boycotts.

In some cases, the potential for using violence against civil rights workers is discussed in commission memorandums. Although none of the documents reviewed yesterday show a direct state hand in the numerous deaths of activists in Mississippi during those years, they clearly reflect the mind-set of the day.

In one 1959 memorandum, for example, commission investigator Zack VanLandingham tells of a conversation he had with a Hattiesburg lawyer, Dudley Connor, about Clyde Kennard, a Mississippi man who attempted to desegregate Mississippi Southern College in Hattiesburg in the late 1950s.

"If the Sovereignty Commission wanted that Negro out of the community and out of the state they would take care of the situation," VanLandingham quoted Connor as saying. "And when asked what he meant by that, Connor stated that Kennard's car could be hit by a train or he could have some accident on the highway and nobody would ever know the difference."

Kennard arrested

In another memo, written by VanLandingham to Gov. J. P. Coleman in 1959, the investigator relates a conversation he had with John Reiter, a campus police officer. "Reiter had several weeks ago told me that when Kennard was attempting to enter Mississippi Southern College in December 1958 that he had been approached by individuals with possible plans to prevent Kennard's going through with his attempt," he wrote. "One of the plans was to put dynamite to the starter of Kennard's Mercury. Another plan was to have some liquor planted in Kennard's car and then he would be arrested."

In fact, Kennard was arrested on Sept. 15, 1959, on charges of illegal possession of whiskey after police officers claimed to have found five half-pints of whiskey and other liquor under his car's front seat.

Day of revelation

For those who have waited for decades to see what information the state had collected about them, their family members and their friends, the day provided a long-awaited moment of revelation and relief.

"Twenty-one years is a long time to wait to see what is in here," said Ellie J. Dahmer, clutching a packet containing the file on her husband, Vernon Dahmer, who was killed when their Hattiesburg house was firebombed in 1966.

Mrs. Dahmer, who spoke outside the archives building in front of a memorial to the Confederate dead, said she hopes that her husband's file might help prosecutors retry Sam Bowers, an Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan who was acquitted in 1968 of ordering the firebombing. That trial, for arson, ended when the jury deadlocked 11-1. A second trial, for murder, ended in a 10-2 deadlock.

The Clarion-Ledger, Jackson's daily newspaper, published a story by Mitchell last week saying that notes taken from FBI files suggest that Klan members had contacted jurors in the first case.

A review of Dahmer's file yesterday revealed no evidence of Sovereignty Commission involvement in Bowers' trials. A 1958 memorandum, however, did list Dahmer as one of three "potential troublemakers."

The release of the Sovereignty Commission files here comes at a time when the South is making fresh efforts to disinter the history of some of its most tortured times.

After years of silence, the family of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is encouraging efforts to discover whether James Earl Ray really was responsible for the 1968 assassination of the civil rights leader. Federal investigators in Birmingham, Ala., have reopened the case of the 1963 bombing of the 16th Avenue Baptist Church, which killed four girls.

In Mississippi, several civil rights activists who were the subjects of Sovereignty Commission investigations said yesterday that they may use their newly released records to file lawsuits against the state. Prosecutors said that it also is possible that information found in the files could be used to press criminal charges against alleged perpetrators, if they are still alive.

The unsealing of the Sovereignty Commission files yesterday concluded a two-decade legal battle that began in 1977, the year the state Legislature voted the commission out of existence and sealed its records for 50 years. The American Civil Liberties Union and several individual plaintiffs filed suit to keep the records open, and in 1989 U.S. District Court Judge William Barbour ordered that they be released.

Pub Date: 3/18/98

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