January 19, 2001
Mississippi Releases Secret Documents
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) -- After examining the burned-out station wagon of three
civil rights workers who vanished in Mississippi, an investigator from a
secret state agency concluded in 1964 there were no signs of foul play.
The revelation about the infamous case, in which the three turned out to
have been slain, was included in 1,800 pages of documents released Thursday
from the files of the state-funded Sovereignty Commission.
It was the third and final cache of papers released by the state and shed
new light on some of the darkest days of the civil rights struggle.
Documents show the commission, which was created in 1957 and disbanded in
1973, kept tabs on more than 87,000 suspected subversives and civil rights
Headed by state legislators, governors and white businessmen opposed to
desegregation, the group was pledged to preserve the status quo in the
"It's a very important story that needs to be told so that Mississippians
can understand what happens when the government is allowed to operate in
secrecy," said David Ingebretsen of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Documents show the group played on the fears of blacks and others by using
tactics that sometimes cost civil rights sympathizers their jobs.
In one document, a commission agent who examined the three freedom riders'
station wagon said there was "no physical evidence that these three civil
rights workers have met with foul play other than the burned car, which
could easily be part of a hoax."
The bodies of the workers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael
Schwerner, were later found buried beneath an earthen dam. No one has been
convicted of the murders, although seven Klansmen were convicted of federal
Some scholars said the agency appeared to be a cross between the Keystone
Kops and the Soviet Union's KGB.
"It had a certain comic quality to it, but their actions also had some
vicious results," said Joe Parker, a political science professor at the
University of Southern Mississippi.
Parker said the spy group had produced a primitive documentary-style
segregationist propaganda film called "Message from Mississippi."
"They were nefarious on the one hand and inept on the other," said Jerry
Mitchell, a veteran newspaper reporter portrayed in the 1996 civil-rights
movie "Ghosts of Mississippi".
The spy agency was disbanded after Gov. William Waller vetoed funding in
1973. The Legislature tried to seal the documents but a federal judge
ordered them made public in 1998. Some are available on the Internet.
"We're now filling in the gaps in what is probably the most important
chapter in this state's history," Ingebretsen said.
A total of 132,000 pages of commission documents have been made public since
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