ADIFF 2013 Review - Dawn Porter's Anti-Civil Rights Espionage Doc 'Spies Of Mississippi'
Photo Credit: S & A

ADIFF 2013 Review - Dawn Porter's Anti-Civil Rights Espionage Doc 'Spies Of Mississippi'


The closing night film of this year’s NYADIFF is a documentary that is, at its core, about how

completely delusional racists are. It is, after all, only delusion that could make a thinking

human being believe that a racially segregated world is the only kind of world worth living in. In

Dawn Porter’s Spies of Mississippi, the height of racist delusion is reflected in the

history of Mississippi’s Sovereignty Commission, an entity created In 1956 to enable the state

government to “maintain a successful fight to preserve the separation of the races,” using “any

and all powers.” Those powers, it is revealed throughout the course of the film, involved the

construction of a clandestine spy organization which investigated, infiltrated, and sabotaged civil

rights organizations throughout Mississippi.

Beginning with a handful of white agents, some former highrollers for the FBI, by 1960 the

Commission had grown into a legitimate, secret institution comprised of dozens of agents, also

hiring out much of its investigative work to at least five detective agencies. With the Civil Rights

movement reaching its height at the time, the agency also began to hire black agents to help

with the internal investigation of activist organizations such as the NAACP.

Every documentary, especially those about the time of the Civil Rights movement, have the

difficult task of having to be truthful and unbiased despite residing on the other side of history,

where we all believe we may “know things” about the past. But with the revelation of the black

secret agents who helped the Commission in its surveillance of protesters, the title Spies

of Mississippi is thrown into an entirely new light.

Because we often forget, or perhaps refuse to acknowledge, that there were some black people

during the days of the Civil Rights movement who did not march or sit-in. Some believed in the

movement, but were themselves (reasonably) afraid to take action. Others, as the documentary

takes special care to highlight, were as conservative about integration as their white, racist


What’s amazing, and disturbing, is that many of the black spies are revealed to be religious

leaders of the day who were afraid of losing their social standing with integration, people like

people like Reverends B.L Bell, H.H. Humes, and Baptist Convention leader Percy Greene, all

were paid by the Commission to spy on the movement. As Martin Luther King Jr. puts it in the

archival footage that strings throughout the piece, the tragedy of segregation for the black man

is, “Not only the physical inconvenience, but what it has done to his soul, what it has done to

him psychologically.”

The most damning section of Spies of Mississippi deals with the infamous murders

of civil rights workers Michael Henry Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney. The

story of these three young activists who went missing in Mississippi only to be found dead

months has been explored elsewhere (Mississippi Burning), but here, as we learn

more about the connection between their deaths and the Commission, the senselessness and

injustice of their murders is only further compounded

There are several authoritative voices throughout this documentary that paint a vivid portrait of

life in Mississippi under the secret eye of the Commission, interviews with activists including

Lawrence Guyot, Bob Moses, former Governor of Mississippi William Winter, and investigative

reporter Jerry Mitchell, who in the 1980s revealed files about the Commission that would later

bring the assassin of Medgar Evers to justice.

Porter also includes interviews from people who were actually involved with the Commission,

RL Berger, a former NAACP officer who many believed was a black informant (he denies this

despite damning evidence), and white Sovereignty Commission agent Horace H. Harned, Jr,

who even now in his old age is clearly unrepentant in his work to undermine the progress of

racial equality in the South. “We weren’t intimidated.” he says, “The important thing was not to

be intimidated. If you’re intimidated, you can’t control anything.”

Weaving together fascinating interviews with images of the Commission’s surveillance photos

and thousands upon thousands of files on the people they watched – some of them active civil

rights workers, others everyday people – Spies of Mississippi is as cohesive as it

is engaging, another interesting portrait of a time in our past too often regarded as a sort of

ancient history. Here, the links between the activities of the Sovereignty Commission and our

government’s activities today are made clear, ending on a disturbing but thought provoking

final note that asks the viewer to always question the morality of a government that spies on its


Zeba Blay is a Ghanaian-born film and culture writer based in New York. She runs a personal movie blog, Film Memory, and co-hosts the podcast Two Brown Girls. Follow her on Twitter @zblay.

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