Monday, March 22, 2010

Review: Spies of Mississippi by Rick Bowers

Found via: Betsy at Fuse #8

Spies of Mississippi would make a gripping spy novel. An insidious organization turning neighbor against neighbor, finding collaborators within target communities, and corruption at all levels of the government. But this isn't fiction - this is the true story of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission. Founded in 1956 by "moderate" governor J.P. Coleman (moderate because he wanted blacks and whites to remain segregated but he also wanted peace and quiet as opposed to wide-scale violence against black citizens), the agency was charged with maintaining segregation in Mississippi for almost two decades. The spies went by names like "Agent X" to preserve their anonymity, and involved everything from writing down the license plate numbers and finding the home addresses of freedom riders who came from the north, to convincing prominent members of the African-American community to turn on anti-segregation neighbors so the agency could threaten those who would work against segregation.

The chapters are short, with each one focusing on a small part of the agency's history and strategy. The format works well, as the short chapters give each part of the story a narrow focus. However, because of that narrow focus, there are some details that are lost. Bowers never gives us much biographical information on anyone, giving us just enough to get the gist and move on. While this is okay for the most part, I would really have loved to know more about the African-Americans who worked with the commission. It's easy to see, if not totally understand, why a white person would be eager to join in a pro-segregation crusade, but what would make a victim of segregation laws join forces with those who sought to continue those laws? Was it fear of retribution? A longstanding philosophy that agreed the races should remain separate?

But that's just a minor nitpick in what is otherwise a fascinating book. I knew that in the 1960s the FBI had a rather extensive domestic spying program targeting Vietnam protesters and the like (a fact which is noted in the final chapter, which gives a brief paragraph or two on what became of the major players after the downfall of the Commission), but had absolutely no idea one state had taken it upon itself to create a wide-ranging, publicly funded, spy agency. This is a slim book, which means that while it doesn't get into every detail I might have liked, it's easy to pick up and read in an afternoon - and trust me, you're not going to want to put this one down.

Nonfiction Monday

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