Spies of Mississippi: The True Story of the Spy Network That Tried to Destroy the Civil Rights Movement by Rick Bowers

spiesLynn: If Spies of Mississippi (National Geographic, 2010) were a TV plot, we’d be shaking our heads and talking about how improbable it was. In fact I found I had the theme of the old series Dragnet running through my head as I read this. But this is real. It is actual history: jaw-dropping, unbelievably horrifying history. In 1956 the incoming Governor of Mississippi found upon his desk House Bill 880. The Bill proposed the establishment of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, an agency dedicated to preserving the state’s sovereignty – a code word for segregation. With a stroke of his pen, Coleman set the agency into motion. Initially dedicated to obstructing the activities of the NAACP, the Commission eventually expanded its efforts to trying to stop the entire Civil Rights Movement in the state. Bowers’ careful research and chilling text reveal state-sponsored spy rings, secret files, intense propaganda efforts, harassment and intimidation. Backed by state funds and controlled by some of the state’s most powerful political figures, the Commission worked in secret to preserve white supremacy. Its efforts are documented in 134,000 pages of its own records that were made public in 1998. Especially eye-opening sections for me were the account of two highly placed black leaders who secretly worked for the Commission and the chapter that relates the carefully negotiated script worked out by Robert Kennedy and then Governor Barnett to allow James Meredith to attend Ole Miss without bloodshed and still save face for Barnett with his segregationist supporters. Carefully researched, Bower tells this little known story that will – and should – appall us all.

Cindy: Every time I read another book about a new (to me) aspect of Civil Rights history I am further shocked at how low humans can reach. To document the details Lynn highlighted, there are a dozen or so photos in a center insert showing billboards accusing MLK Jr. of attending Communist Training School, and photos of many of the key people who were in (and who fought against) the  Sovereignty Commission. An appendix features a collection of other documentation: copies of checks made out to informants, reproductions of pamphlets from the Commission, and other memos. As sad and angry as the stories in this book and others make me, I am always buoyed by the bravery of the individuals who risked so much to rail against injustice. I look at the mug shots of the freedom riders (one of a number of photos inserted in the middle of this book) and see heroes’ eyes staring back, not criminals being checked for subversive backgrounds. While James Meredith had to be escorted by gas-mask wearing national guards to attend his first classes, the Ole Miss enrollment today includes a 20% minority population. Progress? Yes. Are we there yet? No. It was 2008 before Charleston High School (Mississippi) held its first integrated prom instead of separate proms for whites and blacks. Some white parents wouldn’t allow their children to attend, others held a private separate  prom for them. The next year separate segregated proms were held again. And this year? The Mississippi prom news includes a banning of a school-sponsored prom at Itawamba County School District after a lesbian student requested to attend with her girlfriend.  We need to read these books, even if the events they describe are painful. We need to remember and we need to keep fighting for equality for everyone. We’re not there yet. It’s not time to rest. Who are your heroes today?

nonfiction-mondayThank you to the blog In Need of Chocolate for hosting today’s Nonfiction Monday blog round-up.

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About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

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