ADIFF 2013 Preview: Anti-Civil Rights Espionage Documentary 'Spies Of Mississippi'

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by Tambay A. Obenson
November 6, 2013 11:25 AM
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From director Dawn Porter (Gideon’s Army) comes yet another intriguing documentary - this one delectably-titled Spies Of Mississippi, which is scheduled to screen at the New York African Diaspora International Film Festival (ADIFF), which runs from November 29 to December 15, 2013, in a New York Premiere.

The film is based on a book by author Rick Bowers, titled, Spies of Mississippi: The True Story of the Spy Network that Tried to Destroy the Civil Rights Movement. It tells the compelling story of how State spies tried to block voting rights for African Americans during the Civil Rights era. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission compiled secret files on more than 87,000 citizens in what is said to have been the most extensive state spying program in USA history, in an effort to "save segregation."

Here's a longer summary courtesy of the film's website:

It is the spring of 1964 and a long, hot Mississippi summer is about to explode. The civil rights community is gearing up for a major operation nicknamed Mississippi Freedom Summer.  Hundreds — if not thousands — of mostly-white student activists from the North are preparing to link up with dozens of mostly-black freedom workers in the Magnolia State to accomplish what the Mississippi power structure fears the most: registering black people to vote.

The state’s entrenched white power structure has a different name for Freedom Summer — they call it an “invasion” and they are ready to fight back.  For the segregationists Freedom Summer is nothing less than a declaration of war on the Mississippi way of life. The state responds by fortifying its Highway Patrol and 82 county sheriff offices with hundreds of newly sworn-in deputies, stockpiling tear gas and riot gear in larger cities and preparing prison wardens and county jailers to expect an influx of summer guests. This tinderbox needs very little to ignite.

But the most powerful men in the state have another even more powerful weapon in their arsenal — a secret so well kept it is known to only a small circle of insiders: The state of Mississippi has entered the spy business. A no-nonsense group called the  Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission has quietly created a secret, state-funded spy agency answering directly to the Governor.  The Commission has infiltrated the civil rights coalition, eavesdropping on its most private meetings, and pilfering its most sensitive documents. The spies’ method of obtaining such sensitive information can be traced to an even more explosive secret known only to a handful of state officials that oversee the Commission and its anti-civil rights spy apparatus.  The Commission’s most potent weapon is a cadre of black operatives code who have infiltrated the movement, rooting out its future plans, identifying its leaders and tripping up its foot soldiers. Along with a cadre of confederates, the black operatives are gaining the trust of civil rights crusaders to gain intelligence for the segregationist state.

Riveting stuff here! Anti civil rights espionage that would make for, not only great documentary material, but a scripted feature film as well. 

Spies Of Mississippi, produced by Risa Morimoto, will be the ADIFF's closing night film, which will be followed by a Q&A with director Porter, and a catered reception.

It screens on Sunday, December 15 at 8PM, at the Symphony Space theaters in Manhattan.

For tickets, click HERE.

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More: Festival Dispatch, Dawn Porter

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2 Comments

  • onyx | November 6, 2013 4:16 PMReply

    I'm very interested in seeing this. On a side note, I recall an article in the NY Times that alleged photographer Ernest Withers was a paid FBI informant during the civil rights movement in the 1960s. The link wouldn't take because it was viewed as spam, but the date of the article is Sept 14 2010 and the author is Robbie Brown.

  • No | November 6, 2013 12:20 PMReply

    I remember reading about this in a New Yorker article in the 1990s. Glad someone is doing this as a film. It really underscores how the US, to varying degrees, has always been keeping blacks under surveillance through local, state and federal agencies. Now, the whole country (and world) is being watched and monitored under the NSA.

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