News Tag: Racial Justice

Here We Go Again

April 16, 2014

As I watched Spies of Mississippi by Dawn Porter, I am struck by that odd feeling of déjà vu. While the focus of the documentary is the Sovereignty Commission, it plumbs truer to capturing the modus operandi of a powerful segment of Mississippi: when confronted with uncomfortable cultural issues of the day (any day), the Mississippi legislature comes through with legislation that puts us on the wrong side of history.

In 1956 they passed into law the Sovereignty Commission. In 2014, they bring us religious freedom.

I am sure there will be those who say, “whoa, there is no correlation between the blighted past of segregation and the issues of today.” Yet the nationwide trends of today and yesteryear prove otherwise. The hot button issue of the 1950’s was segregation and the civil rights era nationwide. The national issue of today is marriage equality, also known as same sex marriage; but negatively cast by a certain segment of Mississippian as "gay marriage."

Then, as it is now, there are varying degrees of emotion invested in opposing forces. Then it was unthinkable to share books, pools, and classrooms. Those opposed to mixing races were embedded in the State Legislature and used this to tunnel themselves out the wrong side of history. Along the way, their animus created the lasting fog of division and hatred that is so slow to recede.

Now, it is unthinkable for some that a person can choose to love and marry someone of the same sex. Those opposed to this freedom of our citizens are embedded in the State Legislature and are using their power to again tunnel out the wrong side of history. Yet they are more subtle in language, and much more strategic in implementation. As Sunnivie Brydum states on, “the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, doesn't explicitly mention sexual orientation or gender identity, opponents contend that the law allows businesses to deny service to anyone who supposedly contradicts the business owner's sincerely held religious belief — a none-too-subtle effort to legalize discrimination against LGBT people and other minorities under the guise of ‘religious freedom’."

History again will record the outcome. However, why should we, as a state, continue to live the definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different outcome?

We should not.

Now is the time to use the guide of history and reverse the engrained perceptions and attempt progress of thought. In Spies, noted civil rights leader Lawrence Guyot quotes President Lyndon Johnson in saying “there is America, there is the South, and then there is Mississippi.” At the heart of that statement is the State Legislature passing a law that once again places us, as a state, on the wrong side of history. Their efforts to disguise or cloak this law in “religious freedom” does not hide its meaning. Nor does it release us from our miserable past. Those historical references and the pointed look at the similar histories of Senate Bill 2681 and the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission should provide stark enough images to cause a change in course as a state.

Yet, here we go again.

There's Work Yet to Be Done

April 01, 2014

“There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.”

Dr. Martin Luther King

A year ago, I wrote an email to my pastor advising him of my decision to accept the task of directing the work of the ACLU of Mississippi. On this the anniversary of my first year as the Executive Director, I would like to share excerpts from this personal communication.


As you may know God has placed in me a passion to stand in the gap for others and to extend equality and justice to those less fortunate than some of us. I know that Isaiah 61 is the call God has on my life to minister to the neglected, the informed, and the poor. My gift includes a boldness and fearlessness to give voice to the voiceless and those others just refuse to hear. Like the Lord I love justice. This is what I am anointed to do.

God has opened the door for me to return to my passion. I have been offered and have accepted the position of Executive Director of the Mississippi affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union.

As I completed law school and prepared to leave MS, the Holy Spirit told me to stay for "there is still work to be done". I did that and was not only successful in my task but as a result of the work God gave me to do significant changes were made in MS's juvenile defense system. All Glory given to the Father. After many years of fighting institutions . . . I grew weary. . . . I am renewed and ready to return to the fight for freedom and justice for all. There is yet still work to be done. I solicit your prayers.

Please know my belief in and reliance on God's word have not wavered. It is God who has brought me this far and it is He who will lead me on. I believe it is God who has brought me to this hour in my life. The ACLU under my direction will tackle many issues which will prayerfully make Mississippi a more even playing ground.

I wanted to discuss this with you because many people forget that the ACLU's mission is to defend the Constitution. This mission which includes voter rights, racial justice, education rights, health care disparities, access to the courts etc. (issues important to the African American community and other disenfranchised populations) is often forgotten when issues such as women's right to make their own health care decisions are overshadowed by abortion debates.

As the ED of ACLU-MS, I will also be the spokesperson for our work. On occasion, however, the position I take may differ from yours. . . . I would ask that you respect that as I extend justice to some I may be asked to extend justice to all.”

I shared this letter not to promote my passion but the commitment shared by the team of social justice professionals that make up the staff of the ACLU of MS. My story is but one example of the conscience decision it takes to do the work we do to bring about positive change. The positions we take are not often not popular or safe but they are necessary as someone must stand in the gap.

The ACLU of MS has assembled a team of guardians who stand ready to defend the Constitution and extend civil liberties to all Mississippians. This year alone we stood in the gap with a child who had been literally left behind by the bus when his school unconstitutionally denied his right to attend school. We stood with a doctoral student when she was racially profiled. We stood with a Sikh truck driver when he was harassed not only by the highway patrol and discriminated against by judge before whom he was compelled to stand. We stood with the LGBT community when they stood at the Capitol to let policy makers know they are here and they count. We will continue to stand in defense to equal access to the voting booth. We will stand with women to ensure their right to make personal health care decision. We will continue to stand in protection of children against the funneling of the school to prison pipeline.

I start my second year knowing and more importantly wanting you to know that the ACLU of Mississippi will stand with you.

Sensible Policy, Not Smaller Handcuffs

March 24, 2014

By Nicole Kief, ACLU & Jennifer Bellamy, Washington Legislative Office at 12:45pm

You may have heard recently about Dontadrian Bruce, the Mississippi high school student who was almost expelled for holding up the number "3" with his fingers in a photo taken by his science teacher. Dontradian is number 3 on the football team – and despite his being an A/B student with no history of serious disciplinary problems, the school said he was making a gang sign.

This isn't the first time the school district has been quick to label a Black student a "gang member." And in fact the unnecessarily harsh treatment of students of color for misbehavior—or perceived misbehavior—at school is a huge problem across the country. Too many young people are being pushed out of school and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems instead of given the chance to learn from their mistakes. This phenomenon is frequently referred to as the school-to-prison-pipeline.

New data from the federal government, released on Friday, shows just how serious the problem is—and highlights how students of color and those with disabilities are being systematically denied access to education. According to the new data, during the 2011-2012 school year, Black students were suspended and expelled at a rate three times greater than white students. And students with disabilities were more than twice as likely to receive an out-of-school suspension than their non-disabled peers. Both groups of students were also disproportionately likely to be referred to law enforcement and arrested at school.

To add further insult to injury, kids barely out of diapers are also being subjected to these harsh racially disparate forms of exclusionary discipline. The new data shows that Black preschoolers are more likely to face suspension. Black students represent only 18 percent of preschool enrollment, but make up 42 percent of students suspended once, and 48 percent of the students suspended more than once.

One could assume these statistics are the result of Black kids misbehaving more, but that's just not substantiated by facts. As experts at Indiana University recently pointed out, "the data are consistent: there is simply no good evidence that racial differences in discipline are due to differences in rates or types of misbehavior by students of different races." These experts also point out that disparities are often greatest for subjective offenses—like "disrespect"—rather than objective ones—like smoking.

What we do know to be true, however, is that keeping kids out of school will harm them – by making them more likely to fail classes, drop out and become involved with the juvenile justice system. We also know that several promising interventions exist that can help keep kids in school and reduce racial disparities in discipline.

Let's use them, because we need sensible school discipline policy not smaller handcuffs.

Learn more about the school-to-prison-pipeline and other civil liberty issues: Sign up for breaking news alerts, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

ACLU of Mississippi Statement on Amendment of Proposed Religious Freedom Restoration Act

March 12, 2014

Senate Bill 2681 Still a Threat

March 12th, 2014

CONTACT: Morgan Miller, 601-354-3408,

Jackson, Miss - The ACLU of Mississippi remains concerned that the status of Senate Bill 2681 continues to open the door to discrimination against any group based on religious objections. Although the House did strike section one of the proposed bill removing all language related to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) with the exception of adding “In God We Trust” to the state seal, it passed an amendment to establish an unnecessary Religious Freedoms Study Committee. The establishment of the study committee does no more than keep this potential license to discriminate “alive” as admitted by House Judiciary B Committee Chair, Representative Andy Gipson.

Rep. Gipson offered as evidence to support the RFRA that other states, including southern states, have adopted similar bills. The fact is that legislatures across the country, including Georgia, Idaho, Maine and Ohio have rejected similar measures.

We are disappointed that such a ploy to keep a discriminatory measure was supported and ignored the national, local and public outcry against legislation of this nature. The ACLU of Mississippi will continue to oppose Senate Bill 2681 and will defend religious freedom as a fundamental right. We have the absolute right to believe whatever we want about God, faith, and religion, and we have the right to act on our beliefs, unless those actions harm others.

Senate Bill 2681 remains a looming threat. The results of the study committee that was established by the amendment that passed the House today may go to conference. If the conference committee reaches an agreement, its report must be approved by both houses by April 2nd.


We want to thank all of the collaborators, legislators, supporters, members and everyone who spoke out against SB 2681! Your efforts made our lawmakers question whether or not this legislation is good for Mississippi.

BUT, this bill is still alive and could be brought back up during this session. Stay tuned, stay active and stay vocal about this issue. The fight against discrimination is still not over!

Over 200 African American Clergy, Evangelical Leaders and Christian Scholars Denounce SB 2681

March 12, 2014

African American Clergy, Evangelical Leaders, and Christian Scholars Denounce Mississippi’s Proposed “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” as a Return to “Jim Crow” South


March 12, 2014

CONTACT: Casey Schoeneberger, 202-569-4254,

With the Mississippi House of Representatives on the verge of passing a bill that would legalize discrimination by commercial businesses throughout the state, over 200 prominent clergy leaders from across the country released a statement denouncing the bill and challenging their fellow Christians who support it to examine their conscience.

The “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” which would allow businesses to discriminate based on sexual orientation, is closely modeled on the Arizona bill that made national news last month when it was vetoed by Republican Governor Jan Brewer under a storm of controversy.

The signers represent hundreds of congregations and include Mississippi clergy leaders along with some of the most high-profile national evangelical and mainline protestant leaders in the country, including.

Bruce Case, Senior Pastor of Parkway Hills United Methodist Church in Madison, MS; Rev. Austin Hoyle, Associate Professor of Theological Ethics at United Methodist Church in Madison, MS; Rev. Michael McLaughlin, Pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Cleveland, MS; Rev. Richard Cizik, President of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good; Rev. Dr. James C. Perkins, President-elect of the Progressive National Baptist Convention; Noel Castellanos, CEO Christian Community Development Association; Mr. James Winkler, President of the National Council of Churches; Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, Director of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of Public Witness Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

The statement read, in part:

“These misguided efforts eerily echo Jim Crow laws that robbed African Americans of their basic human dignity. Businesses once barred not only blacks, but Jews and Asians from buying homes in certain neighborhoods or eating in restaurants even after Supreme Court rulings overturned segregation laws."

Signers of the statement applauded those lawmakers who are rejecting the discriminatory legislation that would return to Mississippi to an era where religious claims and government policy were used to further Jim Crow laws.

Religious leaders’ stances on this issue will also shape the future of the church. A poll released by the Public Religion Research Institute showed that 55 percent of white evangelical Protestant Milliennials believe religious groups are alienating young adults by being too judgmental about gay and lesbian issues.

Signers of the statement include a wide array of high-profile ministers, theologians and thought leaders from across the religious spectrum. The full list of signers and the full text of the statement are below and can be found here. Signers’ affiliations are listed for identification purposes only.

As evangelicals, mainline Protestants and Catholics we are alarmed by the pending Mississippi bill that would allow virtually anyone, including businesses, to discriminate against customers in the name of religious liberty. We call on Mississippi and all states to abandon legislation that threatens democracy, civil rights and religious freedom itself.

These misguided efforts eerily echo Jim Crow laws that robbed African Americans of their basic human dignity. Businesses once barred not only blacks, but Jews and Asians from buying homes in certain neighborhoods or eating in restaurants even after Supreme Court rulings overturned segregation laws.

We must not allow faith to be used in the service of discrimination.

When we seek to codify legislation that discriminates against any class of people—no matter our diverse theological beliefs about marriage—we tarnish the treasure of religious freedom and the highest ideals of our democracy. Most of all, we are complicit in violating the Golden Rule that unites us as Christians—to love God and our neighbor as we love ourselves.


Rev. Austin Hoyle
United Methodist Church
Associate Professor of Theological Ethics
Madison, Mississippi

Rev. Michael McLaughlin
First Presbyterian Church
Cleveland, Mississippi

Pastor Bruce Case
Parkway Hills UMC
Senior Pastor
Madison, Mississippi

Mr. James Winkler
National Council of Churches
Washington, D.C.

Sr. Ann Scholz
Leadership Conference of Women Religious
Associate Director for Social Mission
Silver Spring, Maryland

Rev. Dr. Amy Butler
Calvary Baptist Church
Senior Pastor
Washington, D.C
Sr. Christine Dobrowolski
Louisville, Kentuck

Rev. Jack Haberer
The Presbyterian Outlook
Richmond, VA

Rev. Richard Cizik
New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good
Oak Ridge, Tennesse

Rev. Chuck Currie
Sunnyside and University Park Churches
Portland, Oregon

Rev. Kendrick Curry
The Pennsylvania Ave Baptist Church
Senior Pastor
Washington, DC

Dr. David P. Gushee
Mercer University
Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and Director of the Center for Theology and Public Life
Atlanta, Georgia

Rev. Egon Cohen
Temple University Department of Religion
University Fellow
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Rev. James C. Perkins
Progressive National Baptist Convention
President elect
Detroit, Michigan

Rev. J. Herbert Nelson
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of Public Witness
Washington, D.C

Rev. Kay Huggins
Saint Mark Presbyterian, North Bethesda
Parrish Associate
North Bethesda, Maryland

Rev. Michael Livingston
National Public Policy Director, IWJ
Trenton, New Jersey

Rev. Steven Martin
New Evangelical Partnership For The Common Good
Executive Director
Oak Ridge, Tennessee

Rev. Chuck Currie
Sunnyside and University Park Churches
Senior Minister
Portland, Oregon
Rev. Jacob Simpson
Salem Evangelical Lutheran Church
Baltimore, Maryland

Rev. Sung Moy
Pawling UMC
Pawling, New York

Rev. Dawn Rosignol
Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Burnet, Texas

Rev. Doug Hagler
Interim Pastor
Jenkintown, Pennsylvania

Rev. Deborah Vaughn
Hospital Chaplain
Washington, D.C.

Rev. Paul Frazier
Paul D. Frazier
First Presbyterian Church
Hardin, Illinois

Rev. Ray McKinnon
University City United Methodist Church
Missions Director
Charlotte, North Carolina


Legislative Bills Still Alive - the Good and the Bad

March 05, 2014

We spoke out earlier in the legislative session about some bad and some good bills. Now those bills have moved forward and are up for a vote in either the House or the Senate. Here’s an update on some of those bills and an opportunity to take action.

- Remember HB 49, the bill that would require drug testing for TANF recipients? That bill is still alive and likely to be voted on in the Senate.

This bill:

  • Violates equal protection for low income Mississippians receiving federal aid.
  • It would cost more to implement than it would save.
  • It violate a right to privacy.
  • There is no evidence that public assistance recipients are more likely to use drugs than anyone else.

Contact members of the Senate and tell them to oppose HB 49 and not to take away important resources for Mississippi’s neediest families!

- The Mississippi Student Safety Act is a bill that we want to move forward! SB 2594, is a bill designed to keep students safe by limiting the use of seclusion and restraint on students.

This act will ensure the safety of students in school and promote a positive culture and climate which has been shown to lead to greater academic achievement. A high percentage of students who have been restrained are not exhibiting behavior that would warrant those interventions and the students that are often affected by restraint and seclusion were young students with disabilities, often with no verbal means of communication.

Contact members of the House and tell them to protect our students and pass this bill!

- HB 765 and SB 2325, are disingenuous bills that would not accomplish what the title says they would do. They are both called the “Equal Opportunity for All Students with Special Needs Act,” but do not create equal opportunity for students with special needs. The act restricts the academic programs offered to children with special needs. They violate a child's right to equal protection and discriminate against children with special needs attempting to exclude them from the civil right to education in public schools.

Contact your representative in both the House and the Senate and tell them that this act does not create equal opportunity for students with special needs and does the opposite.

- SB 2430, is a bill to require DNA collection from individuals arrested for a certain crime.
This bill violates equal protection, takes away right to privacy and could exacerbate racial disparities in our criminal justice system. We are innocent until proven guilty and innocent people don’t belong in a criminal database.

DNA collection, analysis and retention is expensive. Given the current economic conditions, storing genetic samples of individuals who have not and may not ever be convicted of a crime may not be a good use of resources.

Contact members of the House and tell them to oppose SB 2430 and protect the right to privacy given in the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution!

For a full list of the 20 bills we are monitoring, please visit the legislative section in each of our Centers of Focus.

Mississippi Is Still Burning

March 05, 2014

SB 2681 could also allow the use of religion to discriminate on the basis of race.

Sadly, throughout our history, religion has been used to discriminate against African-Americans and other racial minorities. Mississippians still face such shameful discrimination. Bills like SB 2681 says to those who seek to discriminate based on race that they can use their religion as justification. This is not just theory.

Religion used to oppose interracial relationships

During the Civil Rights era in Virginia, when a black woman and a white man wanted to get married – in defiance of the state law criminalizing such relationships – a Virginia judge convicting the couple justified his actions using the Bible: “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents . . . The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”

In the 1980s, Bob Jones University, a religiously affiliated school in South Carolina, wanted an exemption from a rule denying tax-exempt status to schools that practice racial discrimination. The “sponsors of the University genuinely believe[d] that the Bible forbids interracial dating and marriage,” and it was school policy that students engaged in interracial relationships, or advocacy thereof, would be expelled.

Religion used to oppose serving African-Americans in restaurants

Also in the 1960s, religion was also used to justify turning away Black people from public businesses, like restaurants. In 1966, three African-American customers brought a lawsuit against Piggie Park restaurants, and their owner, Maurice Bessinger, for refusal to serve them. Bessinger argued that enforcement of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits such discrimination, violated his religious freedom “since his religious beliefs compel[ed] him to oppose any integration of the races whatever.”

Mississippi’s prominent segregationists who used religion to support their beliefs

Former Governor and U.S. Senator Theodore Bilbo justified his hateful racism by relying on the Bible: In a book entitled Take Your Choice: Separation or Mongrelization, Bilbo wrote that “[p]urity of race is a gift of God . . . . And God, in his infinite wisdom, has so ordained it that when man destroys his racial purity, it can never be redeemed.” Allowing “the blood of the races [to] mix,” according to Bilbo, was a direct attack on the “Divine plan of God.” There “is every reason to believe that miscengenation and amalgamation are sins of man in direct defiance to the will of God.”

Mississippi’s recent examples of using religion to discriminate based on race

As recently as 2012, a predominantly white church in Crystal Springs turned away a black couple from marrying in their church.

SB 2681 would allow religious believers to argue that their beliefs allow them to discriminate based on race. Based on American and Mississippi history, this possibility is not remote. We cannot allow this law to pass.

By adding the word substantial in the newest amendment, this bill is “better,” BUT better is not enough when constitutional rights are on the line. The amendment STILL does not fully protect critical civil liberties and is still bad.

  • While the bill adds that a person must be substantially burdened, it still does not go far enough to protect civil liberties for all people.
  • It still allows private individuals and businesses to discriminate against people.
  • It still does not protect against government funding of discrimination and still includes withholding of government benefits.
  • The bill still needs work to completely prevent discrimination of any kind.

The bill will come up on the House floor at some point in the next few days. Keep the pressure on your legislators! The fight isn’t over! We can still defeat this bad bill.

Stand up against discrimination of any kind. Contact your legislator or sign this petition to let lawmakers know that this bill is still bad and could be used to discriminate against anyone based on race, ethnicity, nation of origin, gender, disability or sexual orientation.

SB 2681: Still a Bad Bill

February 28, 2014


The ACLU has opposed Religious Freedom Restoration Act legislation in these 12 states.

The So-called “Religious Freedom” Bill Jeopardizes Good Business Practice, Exposes Employers to Litigation

It has been reported that the Civil Sub-committee voted yesterday to mold the RFRA after the federal government’s 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act. It has been suggested that the amendment “addressed actions by government — not individuals or businesses”. This does NOT go far enough to protect individuals or businesses.

Religious freedom is a fundamental right.

  • The Constitution protects not only the right to believe (or not to believe), but also the right to express and to manifest religious beliefs. We have the absolute right to believe whatever we want about God, faith, and religion, and we have the right to act on our beliefs, unless those actions harm others.

This law would allow religion to be used to discriminate by failing to protect critical civil rights laws in Mississippi.

  • In its original and amended form as reported, this bill could allow people to argue that their religious beliefs exempt them from complying with laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion, color, and national origin.
  • For instance, a government agency employee who does not want to hire an African-American or a Jewish applicant could claim a right to discriminate.

This law would not protect against government funding of discrimination.

  • By defining “burden” to include withholding of government benefits, religious organizations and individuals may use the statute to challenge exclusion from governmental programs. This could result in government funding of not only religious ends and activities, but also discrimination.

This law will result in increased litigation and costs to both government and private businesses throughout our state.

  • Because there is no “substantial burden” requirement, religious exemption challenges could be made to any law, policy, regulation, government action, or decision that affects religious exercise—no matter how minor, incidental, or indirect the alleged burden.
  • These cases will clog up our court system and our state and local governments will have to spend taxpayer dollars to show that the policy or law in question serves a “compelling governmental interest.” There’s no telling how long such cases may take. Private businesses will be caught in this mess as well.

SB 2681 in any form is bad for business, bad for tourism, bad for the people and doesn’t move our state forward.

The fight is still not over.

Contact the members of the House by calling, emailing, stopping by their local offices and telling them to KILL THE BILL before Tuesday, March 12th!

Sign this petition to tell Mississippi legislators to oppose SB 2681!

A Tribute to Mayor Lumumba

February 26, 2014

We are a city, a state and a nation in mourning right now. We grieve for the all-too-soon passing of our visionary leader in Jackson, MS, Mayor Chokwe Lumumba.

Mayor Lumumba was painted with all kinds of “intended” expletives: a radical, too controversial, too divisive and more. We, at the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi, ask: is it divisive to stand up for the rights of people? To be willing to die for what you believe in? To believe that systems that never served most people were going to change without the people changing the systems?

The only thing controversial in this arrangement is that we still live in a society where it can be considered controversial to fight for rights, to fight for human dignity, to stand up for our children and our communities, and to demand a better society for all of us as brothers and sisters. In essence, this is what Mayor Lumumba believed, but it is also what he did.

Mayor Lumumba had the capacity to not just be a visionary who speaks of great things, but a visionary who makes great things happen by re-enforcing the greatness that is in all of us. Mayor Lumumba treated everyone with the dignity that they deserved and our community, in Jackson, and in Mississippi, with the dignity it deserves. His clarion call "free the land", came out of an experience he had in his early days as a warrior for right when land was blocked off from the people with whom he was marching. Today, we must make a decision that we will answer his call and encourage each other and ourselves to continue the fight to free the land from those who would deny what is a "right", fair and just.

Jed Oppenheim, Advocacy Coordinator at the ACLU of MS commented this morning that he had a number of conversations with Mayor Lumumba, mostly on education. “I always got the sense that the most important person in the world was whomever was in front of him. For a leader to be humbled as such and yet be willing to go out and put himself on the line with tough decisions and big ideas says a lot about Mayor Lumumba.”

It is now up to all of us to continue fulfilling the mission of Mayor Lumumba’s life: a sustainably fair, just and equitable society that thrives on the power of the people.

ACLU National: What Have We Learned from the Spies of Mississippi?

February 19, 2014

By Hugh Handeyside, Staff Attorney, ACLU, National Security Project at 2:45pm

The documentary film "Spies of Mississippi," which aired on PBS on Monday, is a grim reminder of the depths that Mississippi authorities plumbed in their efforts to subvert the civil rights movement. The film chronicles the role of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, a secret, state-funded agency established by the Mississippi legislature in 1956. Using a range of spy tactics, the Commission sought to maintain racial segregation, preserve Jim Crow laws, and prevent "federal encroachment" in Mississippi.

The film draws on a trove of Commission records, which are available and searchable online thanks to a 1994 court order in a lawsuit brought by the ACLU of Mississippi. It turns out that the Commission was nothing if not meticulous, documenting the full range of its exploits in service of white supremacy. It initially focused on tracking the activities of civil rights organizations in Mississippi, but within a few years it had mushroomed into a full-scale spy agency, employing a network of investigators and agents who surveilled civil rights activists, tapped their phones, monitored their meetings, stole sensitive documents, and undermined voter rights efforts.

The Commission was ruthless, waging an all-out war against change. Perhaps most painfully, it assembled a cadre of African American informants, some of them respected figures from within the civil rights community, who reported to the Commission on the strategy and plans of the burgeoning rights movement — and sowed fear and mistrust among civil rights leaders. It destroyed the lives of people like Clyde Kennard, a Black Korean War veteran who attempted to enroll at what was then Mississippi Southern College. The Commission orchestrated the planting of evidence used to convict Mr. Kennard of stealing chicken feed. He served seven years in prison. Commission agents also funneled information to local law enforcement (which was rife with KKK members) about student activists who were descending on Mississippi for the "Freedom Summer" of 1964, including James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, who were then murdered by Klansmen.

It may be tempting to isolate these events in the past and decry what happened "back then" in the deep South. That would be a mistake. For African Americans, the legacy of segregation and Jim Crow remains a live issue. And while race-based discrimination is no longer the law of the land—and nothing like the Commission could function today--federal and state law enforcement agencies are still engaged in racial profiling. That's in large part because the Justice Department's "prohibition" on racial profiling by federal law enforcement agencies doesn't extend to national security and border integrity investigations — two huge exceptions that essentially swallow the rule. Likewise, the Attorney General's guidelines for domestic FBI operations allow agents to investigate anyone, without any factual basis for suspicion, as long as the agents claim they are seeking to prevent crime, protect national security, or collect foreign intelligence. Federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies have taken full advantage of the license they've been given:

  • The FBI is "mapping" racial and ethnic communities in the United States based on crude and false stereotypes about particular communities' propensity to commit certain crimes. In Georgia, the FBI documented African-American population increases and focused on activists' protests against police killings to find "Black separatists." It also mapped Latino communities throughout the United States for street gang threats, Middle-Eastern communities in Detroit for potential terrorism, and Chinese and Russian communities in San Francisco for potential organized crime.

  • The Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, and local law enforcement have infiltrated Muslim communities and targeted American Muslims for suspicionless investigation based on nothing more than the exercise of their right to religious liberty.

  • The NYPD has sent informants to spy on mosques and Muslim community organizations, student groups, and businesses, eroding trust and goodwill among innocent New Yorkers.

  • Under the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative, federal, state, and local law enforcement, and even private parties, report on "suspicious activities" — many of which involve First Amendment-protected conduct or everyday events that are anything but suspicious.

  • The NSA undermines individuals who the agency believes are "radicalizing others through incendiary speeches" but who have not engaged in actual criminal conduct. It does so by looking for "personal vulnerabilities" in the data associated with such individuals, including in their online sexual activity.

Ultimately, films such as "Spies of Mississippi" serve two vital purposes: remembrance and reminder. They advance the long project of accounting for America's history of racial subjugation, in brutal detail. They also remind us, in the words of Mississippi Congressman Bennie Thompson, of the "need to keep us safe from terrorists, but also from ourselves."

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