My apologies for the hyperbole, but you owe it to yourself, your children and even your citizenship to spend 60 shattering minutes seeing Spies of Mississippi, a one-and-done screening Thursday, June 26, at The Flicks. Spies of Mississippi isn't just a great film--this contemporary documentary literally requires your attention as the United States approaches the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And you may never look at your nation the same way again.
"At times, history and fate meet at a single time and in a single place," said President Lyndon Johnson before signing the Civil Rights Act into law in July 1964.
And that "single place" was Mississippi. As one eyewitness to history says in Spies of Mississippi, "There is America, there is the South and then there is Mississippi." In the same state that proclaimed "The South's Warmest Welcome" as its official slogan, engaging in civil rights advocacy in Mississippi during the 1960s was a death-defying act.
Especially deadly was a government-sanctioned conspiracy: the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, a state-ordered spy bureau with the sole mission to keep blacks and whites segregated. Simply put, a black person who was registered to vote was deemed an enemy of the state, and a dossier, documenting every element of his or her life, was kept.
In a particularly nasty bit of business, the Sovereignty Commission spied on Clyde Kennard, a black man with the audacity to apply for admission to Mississippi Southern College.The Commission saw Kennard's application as "an attack on the state" and planted trumped-up evidence ("stolen" chicken feed on his farm), which resulted in Kennard being sent to prison for seven years. Spies of Mississippi is packed with documentation--more than 160,000 pages of spy reports were discovered--of egregious acts such as false imprisonment and even murder against American citizens like Kennard.
The stunner is that the Sovereignty Commission recruited and employed African Americans to serve as undercover spies, tasked with sitting in on church meetings, voter registration committees and even NAACP rallies.
Perhaps the most famous incident of the era was the murder of three civil rights workers who were arrested and then went missing in 1964, told so adeptly in 1988's Mississippi Burning. The shocking fact is that the Sovereignty Commission had compiled a detailed file on the three murder victims long before their disappearance, including their car and license plate number. Even more stunning is the revelation that the information came from "Agent X," an African American civil rights activist.
"One has to step back into that time in order to try to wrap your head around what Mississippi was thinking," Dr. Jill Gill, of Boise State's College of Social Sciences and Public Affairs, told Boise Weekly. "They approached it like a war."