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Reconstituting Whiteness: The Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission

by Jenny Irons Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2010, xviii, 260 pp

A review by Jo Freeman

by Jo Freeman

On August 18, 1966, I was a civil rights worker in Mississippi when the Jackson Daily News devoted two-thirds of an editorial page to outing me as a "professional agitator" with Communist associations. Five photos accompanied the editorial. 

Over 30 years later I learned that this material was prepared by the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission (MSSC), an official agency using taxpayer money to preserve white supremacy in Mississippi. In 1989 a federal court ordered what was left of the MSSC files to be deposited with the Mississippi Department of Archives and History for public viewing though legal challenges delayed their actual availability until 1998.

Jenny Irons became intrigued with the MSSC in part due to her own Mississippi roots. Since she started going through the files, a few books and articles have been written about this agency and its activities, each of them lifting one more layer of mystery to see what’s underneath. 

Irons is a sociologist, and her book is not a history so much as an attempt to put the MSSC into the context of Mississippi’s attempts to resist the federal government and retain segregation. As such it is less about what the Sovereignty Commission did to blacks and civil rights workers than to the internal struggles of whites involved in the Southern campaign of "massive resistance." 

Outraged by the May 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, Mississippians founded the White Citizens’ Councils in July. Two years later the state legislature created the MSSC, one purpose of which was to fund the WCC. Almost two hundred thousand dollars in state funds was given to the WCC by the MSSC before the latter was defunded in 1973 and officially closed in 1977. (The WCC became the Council of Conservative Citizens in 1988).

Initially the MSSC was mostly an investigating agency, looking for "racial agitators" among blacks and exposing race traitors among whites. It cultivated informants of both races. When Ross Barnett became governor in 1960, the agency embarked on a massive public relations campaign to sell the Mississippi point of view to the country. 

Barnett brought in Erle Johnston, his campaign publicist, to do this. By the time Johnston became MSSC Director in 1963, his primary program was promoting a more positive image of Mississippi. He wanted to end state funding of the WCC. Among white supremacists, this made him something of a moderate. Investigations continued as did public attacks on civil rights workers as Communists, atheists and sexual deviants. Nonetheless, according to Irons, hard-line segregationists thought Johnston was soft on civil rights.

After Paul B. Johnson was inaugurated as Governor in 1964, Johnston began reining in the horse of all-out white resistance. Irons sees the 1964 and 1965 Civil Rights Acts as a crucial turning point from resistance to partial accommodation, or to put it differently, from official, overt resistance to desegregation of any kind to unofficial, covert resistance. 

It wasn’t respect for the law that prompted a change in strategy, but a concern for white business interests. Many white businesses were caught between blacks who boycotted a business that did not comply with the new laws and whites who boycotted a business that did. Johnson and Johnston wanted whites to pull in the same direction, using superficial compliance to avoid fundamental change. 

Part of this ameliorating strategy was to deny poverty program money to black organizations and communities by investigating and publicizing anything that could be labeled immoral or corrupt. The MSSC also tried to thwart black participation in USDA programs which paid farmers not to grow crops and pressured wholesalers not to supply black merchants.

Irons sees the MSSC as constantly in denial. Even while the reports that made it to the archives complain about the boycotts, the civil rights movement is dismissed as a failure. The reports both express fear of what will happen if blacks win local elections and praise the "good Negro citizens" who vote a "white ticket."

Ultimately, Mississippi adjusted to the new racial order, but not by acquiescing to complete integration. It developed new institutions, such as white private schools, to keep blacks and whites apart and adopted more subtle ways of maintaining white supremacy. It gave up massive resistance but never moved to massive acceptance. Irons’ study of the MSSC helps us to understand why the eradication of racism continues to be such a formidable task.

©2010 Jo Freeman for

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