Mississippi has a history of the worst kind of white supremacist violence. Between 1882 and 1927, there were 517 people lynched in the State of Mississippi—almost one person a month. It was the highest number for any state during that period. The state was also the birthplace in 1954 of the white Citizens Councils that fought the freedom movement and defended Jim Crow segregation. It was home to one of the most violent Klan factions during the 1960s, the Mississippi White Knights led by Sam Bowers. And a state government agency, the Sovereignty Commission, spied on civil rights activists and anyone who thought black people should have voting rights, it aided and abetted Klan killers, and it left a searing mark on the lives of millions.
Mississippi had a large black population, and white people needed to keep them brutally oppressed and disenfranchised in order to maintain control and power. Around 1900, two-thirds of the farmers who owned land in the Mississippi delta were African American. In 1960, black people account for 42% of the population, and constituted a majority in some counties. In the 2010 census, 38% of the population was black, the highest percentage for any place except Washington D.C. (It should be noted that Washington D.C., with over 630,000 residents—50% of whom are black—still does not elect any Senators or Congressional Reps. Wyoming, with an estimated current population of 570,000, elects two Senators and a Congressman.)
Soon after the May 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v Topeka Board of Education, which finally declared Jim Crow segregation a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, a “massive resistance” to desegregation began. Mississippi State Supreme Court Justice Tom Brady wrote a manifesto that became the call to form white Citizens Councils, often known as the “Downtown Klan;” or a Klan without robe or ritual. They organized under the banner of “States Rights,” and quickly grew extremely large and powerful in that state. It is estimated that they had about 60,000 members nationwide at their height. In my book, Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement from the Margins to the Mainstream, I document the chapter by chapter transition of yesterday’s Citizens Councils into today’s Council of Conservative Citizens. I also show that Sen. Trent Lott’s favorite uncle, Mississippi State Senator Arnie Watson, was a leader in the Councils, and considered the United States Senator an “honorary member.”
One of the Citizens Councils most infamous members was a fertilizer salesman named Byron de la Beckwith. Beckwith also regularly attended Klan rallies in Mississippi. On June 12, 1963 he hid in the bushes near the home of NAACP Field Secretary Medgar Evers, aimed his rifle at the civil rights hero and shot him dead. Despite the fact that the evidence against Beckwith was overwhelming, juries twice refused to convict him in 1964. Jackson Clarion-Ledger investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell dug up new evidence in this case and other civil rights murders. A public campaign resulted in a new trial in 1994, and Beckwith was finally convicted.
Multiple other racist murders occurred during that period, including that of Vernon Dahmer, a hard-working successful farmer, store-owner, and sawmill operator near Hattiesburg. He was also the president of the Forrest County Chapter of the NAACP and led voter registration drives until his home was firebombed in 1966. He died of the burn wounds. Thirteen men were initially tried in the case, and four were convicted of murder. Three of the four, however, were pardoned within a few years. The mastermind in the murder, the head of the Mississippi White Knights, Sam Bowers, was tried several times in the case, but not convicted until new evidence was un-covered by reporter Mitchell. Finally, in 1998, Bowers was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.
Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman
One of the visible crimes was the 1964 murder of Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman. The night they were murdered, all three were investigating a church burning—one of three dozen arsons that summer. On the way to the church, they were pulled over by cops and arrested for a phony traffic violation. While Klansmen gathered in ambush, they were jailed and then released—only to be captured by a death squad that numbered over a dozen. There were 1,000 arrests that summer, and the state-sponsored terror was so thick that each arrest carried the possibility of death.
Most murders are tried in state courts. After the FBI investigated this case, however, the State of Mississippi did not bring any charges, claiming instead a lack of evidence. Faced with local stonewalling, in 1967 the federal government brought civil rights charges rather than murder indictments. Of 18 men tried for conspiracy to deprive Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman of their civil rights (by murdering them), eight were acquitted, and seven were convicted and served prison terms. Three of the defendants had mistrials declared. Among those convicted was Deputy Cecil Price, whose picture at trial with fellow defendant Sheriff Rainey became another symbol of the era. Also sentenced in the case was Sam Bowers, the state Klan chief, who served six years and then was released.
Ray Killen, a White Knights Kleagle (or recruiter), missed conviction by the vote of one juror in that first trial. Nevertheless, he was retried for murder in 2005. According to a witness, Killen was still building a Klavern in Neshoba County at the time Bowers was running his White Knights top down. Only Bowers was empowered to have the final say on prospective assassinations. And the witness testified that he was present at a meeting between Killen and Bowers, where the latter formally OK’d the murders. Killen prepared the assassination team in advance, and had an earthmoving bulldozer available to bury the dead. Killen was finally convicted for the murders at that trial.
State Sovereignty Commission
The Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission was a state-financed agency founded in 1956 with the Governor as its nominal head. It wrapped itself in the language of “states’ rights,” but its purpose was to oppose the civil rights movement in that state, and to protect Jim Crow segregation. It acted as an “intelligence” agency: hiring investigators, infiltrating civil rights organizations, and collecting personal information on SNCC and COFO activists, NAACP members and other civil rights advocates.
It also aided and abetted white supremacists. For example, this commission funded the white Citizens Councils between 1960 and 1965, dumping $493,500.00 into its coffers, according to a 1965 Associated Press article. Commissioners also tampered with one or more juries.
When Byron de la Beckwith went to trial in 1964 for the murder of Medgar Evers, the state-funded Sovereignty Commission assisted the killer’s lawyers.
The Sovereignty Commission also kept files and investigated Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman. It provided Klansmen with the license plate number of the car Michael Schwerner drove the night he was murdered. After the three civil rights workers were murdered—but before more than a month before their bodies were found—Neshoba County Sheriff Lawrence Rainey told a Commission investigator that he expected the FBI to name him as a suspect in the case; essentially confessing to the murders. That fact never came to light in the 1960s.
The State of Mississippi finally closed down its Sovereignty Commission in 1977, and sought to holds its record in a secret archive until 2027, but a lawsuit finally opened up the archives, and its records and dirty work can now be accessed via the Internet.
Many other murders remain to be solved, and the white violence in Mississippi remains an open wound upon the body politic.