Sixty years ago this spring, nine Tougaloo College students entered the main branch of the public library in Jackson, Miss., to consult books not available at the “colored” branch. Their goal? To integrate a Deep South public facility that refused to serve Black patrons even as it depended on Black taxpayer dollars.
Jackson police arrested and jailed the students, members of Tougaloo’s NAACP youth council. That set in motion a remarkable series of events from 1961 to 1964 that pitted the full force of the white supremacist power structure in Mississippi against a small, private Black Christian college. At the center of it all were the two most powerful newspapers in the state and the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, a state-funded spy agency — which colluded to destroy Tougaloo College and the emerging civil rights movement.
As Black Americans across the country today wage a mass movement against police brutality, and right-wing media counter with racist ideas and rhetoric, the struggles of the Tougaloo students remain relevant. In the face of state surveillance and misinformation, they launched a movement that achieved civil rights gains for Black Mississippians and forever put white supremacists on notice.
Soon after Brown v. Board of Education was decided in 1954, Mississippi created the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission (MSSC) with the official objective of preserving the sovereignty of Mississippi in the face of federal “encroachment.” The actual goal of the MSSC? Preserving white supremacy by investigating and intimidating anyone working for Black civil rights in the Magnolia State. The MSSC and its private arm, the White Citizens’ Council, were designed as the “respectable” alternative to the Klan.
They had powerful allies. The Clarion-Ledger and the Jackson Daily News, the morning and afternoon papers in the state capital, Jackson, owned by the Hederman family, worked closely with the directors of the MSSC. The commission shared its secret investigative reports on civil rights activists and sympathizers with the Hedermans and planted stories in the papers. Editors and reporters passed information to the commission. Together the MSSC and Jackson news leaders provided Mississippi with a constant stream of white supremacist propaganda that, with the ever-present threat of violence and social reprisal, stifled public debate.
As the Tougaloo students attempted to integrate Jackson’s main library, they faced the threat of violence, imprisonment and a news media that labeled them “outside agitators” who deserved to be mistreated by the police. Although all of the Tougaloo Nine were from the South and most hailed from Mississippi, the Jackson Daily News claimed the NAACP was providing propaganda for the Soviet Union.
The evening of the library sit-in, Jackson State College students, working with NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers, held a prayer vigil in front of the campus library. About 700 people gathered to support the Tougaloo Nine as chants of “We want freedom!” rose into the night sky. But the vigil was short-lived. The college president, accompanied by police, dispersed the gathering with shoves and threats of expulsion, telling a Daily News reporter, “This is more trouble than we have had here in 20 years.”
The next day, 50 Jackson State students marched peacefully to the jail where the Tougaloo students were meeting with their college president, Daniel Beittel, who was supportive. (The MSSC would later have a hand in his forced resignation.)
The Jackson State students never made it.
As the Clarion-Ledger reported with seeming satisfaction, “Scores of city police, county patrolmen and deputy sheriffs converged on the group,” wielding tear gas, clubs and police dogs. “No parades are allowed without permits in Jackson,” the chief of detectives told the reporter.
At the same moment, 5,000 White Mississippians, many in Confederate regalia, were allowed to have a parade celebrating the centennial of Mississippi’s secession from the Union, a reminder that, no matter the outcome of the Civil War, the White power structure still ruled the state.
Meanwhile, the Sovereignty Commission, which enjoyed close ties with not only the press but also with police and city and state officials, opened files on the Tougaloo Nine, the Jackson State students and their mentors, and sent investigators to dig up dirt on the students (they found none). They then informed employers of the students’ actions in hopes they would lose their jobs.
Two days after the library sit-in, the Tougaloo Nine faced trial. The courtroom was split down the middle, half Black and half White, and a line of 25 police officers and two German shepherds were stationed outside, ready to pounce at the first sign of “agitation.” When a crowd of Black supporters burst into applause as the Tougaloo students arrived outside the courthouse, the officers and dogs attacked. Medgar Evers took a pistol blow to the head, and many were clubbed and mauled.
The Nine were convicted of breaching the peace. The Jackson papers didn’t print a single word opposing police brutality against peaceful Black citizens.
Now the commission doubled down on its attacks against Tougaloo, which it viewed as a dangerous hotbed of civil rights organizing and mortal threat to segregation and white power.
With the help of journalists at the Clarion-Ledger and the Jackson Daily News, the MSSC, working with police and private investigators, spied on Tougaloo activities and on administrators, faculty and students for years. The commission even cultivated inside sources who informed on colleagues, students and civil rights activists, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., when he visited the college.
The Daily News nicknamed Tougaloo “cancer college,” a racist reference to biracial events and organizing on campus. The Clarion-Ledger ranted about the “invasion of Jackson by the so-called ‘Freedom Riders,’ ” who arrived just two months after the Tougaloo Nine action. The paper took particular umbrage that Tougaloo helped and housed the riders and later enrolled two White women who participated in the rides. The Daily News claimed Soviets in Cuba trained the Freedom Riders and planned the rides.
Tougaloo was undaunted, advancing multiple civil rights actions across the next few years, including a now-famous sit-in at Woolworth’s, where Tougaloo students and faculty were viciously attacked by White racists; a series of boycotts of White businesses that practiced segregation or wouldn’t hire Black workers; pray-ins at White churches that didn’t allow Black parishioners, and a letter-writing campaign to celebrities and performers alerting them to segregated audiences. Many refused to visit or perform, except in Black venues, like Tougaloo, where Black and White youth from area colleges attended a Joan Baez concert.
Tougaloo’s status as a private college not dependent on state funding made it harder for the MSSC and the state to control. But private funders could be manipulated, too.
As the movement made progress and Northern news media provided sympathetic coverage, the MSSC and the Jackson newspapers became ever more alarmist. The commission sent secret reports on Tougaloo to the governor, state legislators and the Hedermans, and the White power structure decided that, since the state couldn’t defund a private college, they would revoke Tougaloo’s accreditation. Such an action would make Tougaloo graduates, most of whom were training to be teachers, unemployable in Mississippi.
In 1964, Erle Johnston, then director of the MSSC, told White leaders on the Tougaloo board in New York that Beittel — the college president who had supported his students and faculty in their civil rights work — had to go or the college would lose accreditation. The president of Brown University, which had developed a still-ongoing cooperative program with Tougaloo, agreed, believing the Ford Foundation and other potential funders would turn away if Tougaloo continued to fight for Black civil rights.
After Beittel’s forced resignation, Tougaloo could no longer serve as the vanguard of the Mississippi civil rights movement in the 1960s. But the movement persisted, and in 1973 the MSSC was shuttered.
The work continues. In 2020 Tougaloo, responding to continued police brutality against Black Americans, established the Reuben V. Anderson Institute for Social Justice, named for an alumnus who graduated in 1964 and became the first Black justice on the Mississippi Supreme Court. As Myrlie Evers-Williams, the activist and widow of Medgar Evers, said, “The change of tide in Mississippi began with the Tougaloo Nine.”