South's old wounds opened by secret files

Some subjects of dossiers kept on civil rights activists say they should stay closed, reports Andrew Marshall
Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE SOFT, moist light of Jackson, Mississippi does not do any favours to the state's Department of Archives and History. It is a dreary, box-like 1970s building, quite in contrast to the elegant classical Old Capitol next door. Inside, people sit quietly at computer terminals, pecking away at the keyboards. It is what lies inside these machines that makes this building such a strange and bewildering place. For they contain the souls of thousands of people, living and dead, the generals, foot soldiers and bystanders from a war that is still not over, each reduced to ones and zeros in a massive database.

When the US decided in 1954 to end racial segregation in its schools, Mississippi decided to fight back. The state's white rulers formed the State Sovereignty Commission in 1957, a strange, threatening organisation which was a mixture of publicity campaign and police agency. It went into overdrive after James Meredith, a young black man, decided to break the white stranglehold on the University of Mississippi in 1961 with the help of Medgar Evers, local director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

During its 16 year-history, the commission collected thousands of files on everyone who was considered to be an enemy, a potential threat, or who had merely become involved through their colour or their beliefs in the war against white supremacy. It tried its best to turn Mississippi, from the swampy river delta in the west to the poverty-stricken hill country in the east, into a police state.

The book which lists the names of those registered on the system is itself nearly two inches thick, each page listing four columns of 35 names. Though some are duplicates and many contain merely newspaper clippings, about a quarter are much more sinister: they contain the records of secret investigations, tip-offs from informants, recommendations that employees be sacked or that people should be removed from Mississippi. The agency was often incompetent, but to read of this Deep South Stasi's ceaseless efforts to co-opt, crush, and threaten is chilling.

The aftermath is also reminiscent of what happened when East Germany disappeared, leaving the Stasi's files behind. After a lengthy campaign by the American Civil Liberties Union, a judge at last decided in 1989 that these records could be released. But the limitations that he put on how people could protect their privacy have triggered another conflict, one that pits the civil rights community against itself and which is still unresolved.

The Rev Edwin King, a softspoken man who was jailed, beaten and threatened with murder, is adamantly opposed to letting the files simply be thrown open. "It's a fight between group needs and individual needs," he says. As a former president of the Mississippi branch of the ACLU, he led the initial struggle to open the files; but, dismayed by the absence of protection for individuals who want some information kept secret, he and about 40 others have decided to fight the release of their files.

In many cases, Mr King points out, the files contain downright lies which were designed to discredit members of the civil rights community. In other cases, personal data was accumulated that can still cause harm. There is one case of a woman who, it is claimed in the files, had two teenage pregnancies that were concealed. Some are alleged to be alcoholic or homosexual while others are accused of being Communists.

But anyone who wants to prevent their file being released must demonstrate - for each mention in each file - that there is a pressing reason why it should remain private. "The burden is placed on the citizen," says Mr King, whose own file is 1,400 pages long. To him the principle is clear: people have a right to privacy that needs to be protected.

To David Ingebertsen, current executive director of the Mississippi ACLU, the point is that these files should be open. "What's important is that this story be told again," he says. Opening the files, he adds, has resolved many mysteries, and enabled people to understand what went on in this deeply divided community. As for the fabrications, "the lies they told 20 years ago did not hurt us then, and they won't hurt us today".

It was not just segregation that the commission opposed. It was obsessed with mixed-race sex, for instance. One white woman was suspected of having an affair with a black hotel worker. An investigator visited her home to look at her child, and he decided that it was of mixed race. The woman had her other children taken away from her, she was forced to leave, and her alleged lover was sacked. The commission also zealously chased alleged Communists, apparently seeing no irony in the fact that it had itself brought totalitarianism to Mississippi.

The files have already caused some anguish. One notable figure in the civil rights community, who had always been suspected of collaborating with the authorities, was revealed to be "Informant X," with several folders all to himself. David Evers, whose brother Medgar was murdered, had a number of conversations with the authorities which might be interpreted simply as a necessary dialogue, or might go further. Many in the civil rights community had long suspected him of contacts; they say that in the dangerous and sometimes high-tension days of the 1960s, infighting within the civil rights movement between radicals and moderates often led the authorities to manipulate the opposition to their own ends.

As well as the former Eastern Bloc, the story has grim echoes of South Africa, where the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has tried to sort fact from fiction after apartheid. None of these conflicts is easily reducible to the digital simplicity required by information technology, the law or journalism. Too often, in Jackson as in Gdansk, Soweto or Leipzig, the answers to the significant questions are "maybe" and "perhaps" rather than yes or no. So in a sense, the State Sovereignty Commission has lost its last battle: the history of Mississippi cannot be written in black and white.

Comments