Facebook Twitter

Mississippi panel terrorized blacks

SHARE Mississippi panel terrorized blacks

THESE THINGS HAPPENED. They really happened:

The Mississippi Sovereignty Commission slipped the license plate number of civil rights volunteer Michael Schwerner to the white Citizens Council, which apparently passed it on to the Ku Klux Klan. When klansmen spotted the station wagon, Schwerner and colleagues James Chaney and Andrew Goodman were murdered, their bodies buried in an earthen dam.A commission investigator visited Mabel Worsham and reported her new baby looked biracial. Within days, a court removed 10- and 12-year-old sons from her custody. When she protested, the judge threatened her with jail.

Six men driving a cargo of used books to black kids barred from public libraries were arrested, jailed and fined, with commission help.

A klan "wizard" charged with murdering a local NAACP leader who was trying to defend his family after their home had been fire-bombed escaped conviction by tampering with two juries. The commission sat on the evidence.

Thus the rancid spume from the files of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, opened recently after years of court fights. There's more. And there was worse. The files were purged in the late '60s of material the staff thought most incriminating.

From 1956 through 1973, the commission, created by the Legislature, spied on and harassed, in some cases terrorized, blacks trying to exercise their constitutional rights and activists helping them.

The secret police rummaged in citizens' private affairs, put snitches in newsrooms, investigated family histories for racial taint, got workers fired for attempting to vote.

A few of the victims may be able to press civil suits. The odd criminal charge is possible.

But however cruel the individual injustices, the objective of them all was the larger injustice of denying a whole race the basic rights and comforts of citizenship, the simple ease of mind, that were the given of white American lives. Mississippi - the South: Alabama, Louisiana and Arkansas ran similar operations - didn't really care if one black voted or not. It terrorized one to intimidate all.

Nor were the effects limited to the South. The horrors there inhibited blacks everywhere with the undeniable evidence of their legal and social frailty, of how tenuously they lived in this unreliable land.

We're finally paying compensation, as we should have long ago, to the Japanese-Americans who were forced into West Coast concentration camps during World War II. But for African-Americans forced into concentration camps of the soul, from slavery through segregation, there is nothing.

The Mississippi Senate brushed off a bill this year to pay reparations to the survivors of lynching victims. Only the nine members of the black caucus voted for it. The state's throwback governor, Kirk Fordice, would have vetoed anyway.

How, then, in honor's cause, shall we heal a people and make them whole?