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Review: Dawn Porter's Anti-Civil Rights Espionage Doc 'Spies Of Mississippi' (Premieres Tonight On PBS)

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by Zeba Blay
February 10, 2014 1:37 PM
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Spies Of Mississippi

In commemoration of Black History Month and as part of its ongoing commitment to provide diverse programming and resources for all Americans, PBS will broadcast premiere Dawn Porter's (Gideon’s Army) riveting documentary - the delectably-titled Spies Of Mississippi (which tells the compelling story of how State spies tried to block voting rights for African Americans during the Civil Rights era) - via its INDEPENDENT LENS documentary series, TONIGHT, at 10pm. Check your local listings.

The closing night film of last year’s NYADIFF is a documentary that is, at its core, about how completely delusional racists are. It is, after all, only delusion that could make a thinking human being believe that a racially segregated world is the only kind of world worth living in. In Dawn Porter’s Spies of Mississippi, the height of racist delusion is reflected in the history of Mississippi’s Sovereignty Commission, an entity created In 1956 to enable the state government to “maintain a successful fight to preserve the separation of the races,” using “any and all powers.” Those powers, it is revealed throughout the course of the film, involved the construction of a clandestine spy organization which investigated, infiltrated, and sabotaged civil rights organizations throughout Mississippi.

Beginning with a handful of white agents, some former highrollers for the FBI, by 1960 the Commission had grown into a legitimate, secret institution comprised of dozens of agents, also hiring out much of its investigative work to at least five detective agencies. With the Civil Rights movement reaching its height at the time, the agency also began to hire black agents to help with the internal investigation of activist organizations such as the NAACP.

Every documentary, especially those about the time of the Civil Rights movement, have the difficult task of having to be truthful and unbiased despite residing on the other side of history, where we all believe we may “know things” about the past. But with the revelation of the black secret agents who helped the Commission in its surveillance of protesters, the title Spies of Mississippi is thrown into an entirely new light.

Because we often forget, or perhaps refuse to acknowledge, that there were some black people during the days of the Civil Rights movement who did not march or sit-in. Some believed in the movement, but were themselves (reasonably) afraid to take action. Others, as the documentary takes special care to highlight, were as conservative about integration as their white, racist counterparts.

What’s amazing, and disturbing, is that many of the black spies are revealed to be religious leaders of the day who were afraid of losing their social standing with integration, people like people like Reverends B.L Bell, H.H. Humes, and Baptist Convention leader Percy Greene, all were paid by the Commission to spy on the movement. As Martin Luther King Jr. puts it in the archival footage that strings throughout the piece, the tragedy of segregation for the black man is, “Not only the physical inconvenience, but what it has done to his soul, what it has done to him psychologically.”

The most damning section of Spies of Mississippi deals with the infamous murders of civil rights workers Michael Henry Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney. The story of these three young activists who went missing in Mississippi only to be found dead months has been explored elsewhere (Mississippi Burning), but here, as we learn more about the connection between their deaths and the Commission, the senselessness and injustice of their murders is only further compounded There are several authoritative voices throughout this documentary that paint a vivid portrait of life in Mississippi under the secret eye of the Commission, interviews with activists including Lawrence Guyot, Bob Moses, former Governor of Mississippi William Winter, and investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell, who in the 1980s revealed files about the Commission that would later bring the assassin of Medgar Evers to justice.

Porter also includes interviews from people who were actually involved with the Commission, RL Berger, a former NAACP officer who many believed was a black informant (he denies this despite damning evidence), and white Sovereignty Commission agent Horace H. Harned, Jr, who even now in his old age is clearly unrepentant in his work to undermine the progress of racial equality in the South. “We weren’t intimidated.” he says, “The important thing was not to be intimidated. If you’re intimidated, you can’t control anything.”

Weaving together fascinating interviews with images of the Commission’s surveillance photos and thousands upon thousands of files on the people they watched - some of them active civil rights workers, others everyday people - Spies of Mississippi is as cohesive as it is engaging, another interesting portrait of a time in our past too often regarded as a sort of ancient history. Here, the links between the activities of the Sovereignty Commission and our government’s activities today are made clear, ending on a disturbing but thought provoking final note that asks the viewer to always question the morality of a government that spies on its citizens.


Zeba Blay is a Ghanaian-born film and culture writer based in New York. She runs a personal movie blog, Film Memory, and co-hosts the podcast Two Brown Girls. Follow her on Twitter @zblay.


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