The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A new Mississippi bill is the latest in a long effort to suppress the truth about civil rights history

The state has a long history of trying to hide records and realities from the dark chapters of its past

State Sen. David Jordan (D) asks a question during a debate Jan. 12 at the Mississippi Capitol in Jackson. (Rogelio V. Solis/AP)

The 14 Black members of Mississippi’s Senate recently walked out in protest of the passage of Senate Bill 2113. This bill orders that no public educational institution “shall direct or compel students to affirm that any sex, race, ethnicity, religion or national origin is inherently superior, or that individuals should be adversely treated based on such characteristics.”

Passed by the White Mississippi lawmakers who remained in the chamber, the bill is strategically framed as affirming the equality of all people. But Black lawmakers have suggested that, in fact, it will be used to defund any state school, college or university that teaches students about the history of racism. “Mississippi doesn’t need this,” state Sen. David Jordan (D) said before leaving the chamber. “If anybody should be concerned about racism . . . it ought to be those of us whose parents watered these lands with their tears and made it rich with their bones. Those are my ancestors.”

Black lawmakers such as Jordan walked out because they recognize the bill as part of a larger wave of anti-critical race theory hysteria that threatens to make it more difficult for educators to share the true history of racial violence and activism in their state. Their stand is the latest in a decades-long fight against Mississippi’s historical censorship and archival destruction.

Like today, Mississippi’s White ruling class felt similarly victimized by truth in the 1950s. On Aug. 22, 1955, two White men named Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam tortured and murdered a 14-year-old Black Chicagoan named Emmett Till near the small town of Money, Miss. Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till, waged a campaign for publicity and accountability, sitting for an expose in Jet magazine. She also ordered a glass casket for her son’s funeral. “Let the people see what they did to my boy,” Mamie Till said. An all-White jury acquitted Bryant and Milam, but the event helped catalyze the civil rights movement, inspiring the Montgomery bus boycott and catapulting the young Martin Luther King Jr. and his philosophy of nonviolent direct action to national prominence.

Just seven months after Till’s murder, in March 1956, Mississippi’s White lawmakers established the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission to fight the growing civil rights movement. As Black activists such as Medgar and Myrlie Evers organized local communities to protest hallmarks of the Jim Crow racial order, including school segregation, employment discrimination, voter disfranchisement and lynching, state funding went directly to investigators who spied on, slandered and blacklisted foot soldiers in the freedom struggle. The commission targeted local freedom fighters such as Fannie Lou Hamer and tourists with out-of-state license plates alike.

The commission hired White investigators to surveil civil rights activists throughout the 1960s. Sometimes these efforts proved buffoonish, as when an agent tried to determine whether a newborn baby was the product of a secret, illegal interracial relationship. Other investigators, some veterans of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, were more effectively menacing. They reported to White bankers who made sure activist Black farmers didn’t receive loans, threatening their livelihoods. Sleuths reported teachers who belonged to the NAACP to superintendents so they could be fired. One even aided in the 1963 state-sponsored death of a Black freedom fighter named Clyde Kennard, who had attempted to desegregate a state university before James Meredith’s successful bid in 1962.

Although state officials remained fiercely opposed to desegregation, the civil rights movement made critical gains. In particular, activists helped register Black voters and build political organizations such as the Council of Federated Organizations and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Immense grass-roots efforts such as Freedom Summer made good on the promises of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and proved the necessity of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Even so, the commission remained active. Along with White business executives, the commission launched Project B.I.G. (business, industry and government) in 1965, a public relations effort to “help refute many of the falsehoods told by those who visited the state in connection with the so-called Civil Rights Project.”

It was only after the abuses of Richard Nixon’s Watergate henchmen came into full focus that Mississippi looked with new scrutiny at its own band of dirty tricksters. In January 1977, the state legislature finally shut down the commission with little controversy.

But the organization’s spy files presented a predicament.

Some White lawmakers hastily proposed that the commission’s files be destroyed, either knowing or guessing that doing so would erase documentary evidence of harassment against Black Mississippians and civil rights organizers. Their resolution for archival incineration nearly made it to the floor for a vote.

But the legislature’s three Black members protested and publicized the proposed legislation.

Rep. Horace L. Buckley famously compared the proposed action to a “book burning.” A pastor from Jackson, Buckley was one of the first Black lawmakers elected in Mississippi since 1890. Rep. Fred L. Banks Jr. was another. “The Sovereignty Commission and these records are a part of the history of this state,” Banks said from the floor. “I don’t think we should be about the business of destroying any of the history.”

By Feb. 18, 1977, activists with the Greenville-based Delta Ministry joined lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi to sue the state government. An emergency federal court order restrained state officials from destroying any records.

These efforts worked. They stopped the quiet destruction of state records.

But this was only half the battle. Mississippians might still be waiting to see the rescued commission files had it not been for the 20 years of litigation to open the records that followed. Had the ACLU not sued to see state police records as well, the commission’s files might remain sealed today. In a compromise, the state agreed to open the commission’s files in 1998. Eventually, the Mississippi Department of Archives and History created a public, searchable, online repository for Sovereignty Commission records.

As a result, we have a trove of evidence that shows how the state worked to thwart civil and human rights for Black Mississippians.

While some records have been preserved and made available to the public, much about state repression of the civil rights movement remains shrouded. And powerful forces in the state are working to keep it that way. For example, the state government has quietly placed many state police records on schedules for retention and destruction. If preserved and released, these records could show the extent to which regular law enforcement joined in the commission’s counterrevolution against the civil rights movement. If destroyed or suppressed, we may never fully appreciate the Mississippi movement’s overthrow of the Old Jim Crow or our collective failure to end the New Jim Crow of mass incarceration.

Preserving records is one part of making sure that Mississippians can access their state’s full history. As today’s lawmakers recognize, so are debates about school curriculums and academic freedom.

Supporters of Mississippi’s anti-critical race theory legislation claim that erasing history is not their aim. The bill’s author, Sen. Michael McLendon, disagrees with its critics. “This bill has no intent of changing history, whatsoever,” the Republican said. “All it does is say we’re not telling any child that they’re inferior or superior to another.”

But as Jordan and others see it, a much longer history is at play. Born in 1933 to a Black sharecropping family, Jordan was 32 years old when Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. The husband of a retired schoolteacher, he speaks with some authority when he says McLendon’s bill threatens to warp educators’ and students’ ability to study or investigate injustice.

For Jordan, such legislation smacks of information control — a “turn back to the old system,” as he put it. Instead, it is time to heed the words of Ida B. Wells, a Mississippian forced to flee the Jim Crow South when she reported the truth of lynching: “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.” To do otherwise is to march back into darkness.