In 1998, while directing the journalism program at Emory University, I received a chilling telephone call from Emory law professor David J. Garrow.
Garrow said that my name showed up in the recently released, 134,000-page file of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, a secret espionage network started in 1956 by the state of Mississippi to save segregation.
I was surprised. I had merely taught English and edited the college newspaper at Rust, a historically black college in Holly Springs, Mississippi, during the summer of 1964, called Freedom Summer.
Though I had come to Mississippi from New York, I had not been a civil rights worker from New York, like Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, who had been murdered in Mississippi at the beginning of the summer by Ku Klux Klan members.
I had not felt that Dick Gregory’s joke about traveling south that summer applied to me. He said he would have gone south then but his Blue Cross had expired. “Then again,” Gregory said, “better it than me!”
But Holly Springs, like much of Mississippi, seemed determined that summer to remain segregated. The owner of the movie theater closed it and announced plans to reopen as a private-membership “recreation club.” The local 12-page weekly put news of African Americans, except for crime news, on page 8, devoted to “News of Interest to Colored Readers.”
The public library removed its tables and chairs and, according to Rust students, transferred all of its good books to a private collection. Marshall County Sheriff J.M. “Flick” Ash and his deputies closely monitored civil rights workers who were trying to register voters, and Sam Coopwood, Holly Springs mayor, city judge, clothing store owner and former police chief, oozed a paternalism perhaps as insidious as intimidation.
“Last Saturday this colored man backed out into traffic,” Coopwood said. “He couldn’t pay the $7 fine so I told him to come back when he could. I don’t know anywhere in the world where they turn a man out to get money.”
Rust was at the center of the civil rights opposition in northern Mississippi to the paternalism and discrimination. So I did try to make sure David Beckley, William D. Scott III and the other Rust students who staffed The Bearcat reported on the local voter registration drive, the Freedom School across the street and all of the area’s other civil right activities.
A front-page Bearcat story described the effort of the Council of Federated Organizations to present the new Freedom Democratic Party, open to blacks as well as whites, to Mississippians. A student editorial proclaimed: “There shall be nothing too great for the cause and the cause is freedom, not in the years to come, but now.”
Presented with the opportunity to interview Beckley and Scott, my students from almost a half-century earlier, I asked who spied on us during the summer of 1964. Beckley, who is in his nineteenth year as Rust’s president, fingered George Clark, the African-American owner of a dairy bar, motel and taxi business that served Rust students and other black residents.
Scott, who was active in the 1960s civil rights movement in Holly Springs, now teaches at Rust. He said the activities of Clark and other spies sometimes, ironically, proved helpful. The civil rights movement often wanted to spread the word about its activities, Scott said. The spies, he added, “were useful and they didn’t know they were being useful.” But Scott criticized Clark’s persistent bad-mouthing of Rust and its students.
In Dan Tham’s video excerpt, Scott recalled the threat he faced when, while handing out voter-registration leaflets, he got to Clark’s house and was greeted with a gun…and then the threat that Clark’s businesses faced.