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The celebration of Black History Month always leaves me feeling a bit uncomfortable, for white folks the main emphasis seems to be on honoring the achievements of individual African-Americans. There usually is a magazine piece or public television documentary that uncovers a lost figure whose achievements had been so walled off by the bricks of racism that the discovery has all the atmosphere of opening an ancient Egyptian tomb. Too often in all of this there is a subtle or not so subtle message that these are the leaders, these are the unusual, the exotic.

Even as history as a discipline has moved to studying what used to be euphemistically called “the common people,” Black History Month remains strangely immune to this. Yet while we should not EVER forget the achievements of great scientists or writers who were African Americans, we seem to ignore the achievements of the African American people, especially of groups of African Americans who worked together to change American history.

In recent American history, one of these groups whose name is rapidly fading from the history books but should never be forgotten is the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Besides many admirable recent histories about what was called The Movement, one of the best and most unlikely places to understand the African American grassroots politics of the early 1960s are the records of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, which functioned like the STASI of the former East Germany.

As we argue about bringing democracy to Iraq and other nations, we sometimes imply the difficulty lies with the “undemocratic nature” of the people of those countries. Yet in our hubris we tend to forget that within the living memory of most Americans, Southern segregationists had the equivalent of a secret police force and those who dared cross over the lines drawn by the apartheid of Mississippi and other states sometimes paid with their lives.

Commission records lay under a tombstone of secrecy and protection until a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union opened them for the public in 1998. Although the records appeared sanitized, what emerged was shocking enough�ghosts whose wails tell a sordid story. The handwritten records from one county show payments to informers ranging from $25 up to almost $100, with $40 not being uncommon.

Check marks march down the page, marking African American informers, sometimes several for the same family. Like Nazi and gulag administrators, the Commission believed nothing was too inconsequential to report. An eerie 1964 memo notes: “Rita Schwerner [the wife of slain Civil Rights worker Michael Schwerner] recently purchased a Singer sewing machine in Meridian and had it delivered to 2505 1/2 5th Street in Meridian.”

To picture Mississippi in the early 1960s you have to be prepared to walk into a fevered nightmare which periodically reasserts itself into our consciousness. Fantastical images and shapes flit in the darkness, and curses and screams come from beyond the edge of safety and sanity. We awake with that uncomfortable feeling of sorting out what is real. One memo captures the atmosphere: “It was pointed out to Shiboh by the writer,” it notes, “that he was going a bit beyond the tutoring in Leland and he was advised to be very careful he did not go beyond the provisions of the law and create a problem which could bring about serious trouble.”

Billie Holiday sang about those times in the song, “Strange Fruit:”

Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

The Sovereignty Commission records, as sanitized as they are, tell about a part of America that is within the living memories of many still alive, which makes their reports all the more chilling. In another entry, an agent recommended pressuring a black college to purge itself of Civil Rights “agitators” by threatening to revoke the teaching licenses of all the faculty and of those who graduated with teaching licenses.

A third memo tells of a plant visit by representatives of a racist group that threatened the plant owner if he did not stop hiring African Americans. Reporting on a closed meeting an investigator noted, “The writer could not gain access to the meeting but is very close to some of those who will attend so I should be able to find what was discussed.” A letter documents the Commission’s role in providing a hidden tape recorder that agent Woodley Carr “could use in interviewing the sister of Fannie Lou Hamer.”

I have had the unnerving experience of paging through memos like these only once before and that was reading the Nuremburg trial volumes that documented the atrocities of Nazi concentration camp doctors like Joseph Mengele. Looking at a documents with names underlined with a dark pen stroke inspires thoughts of enemies lists and death decrees. At some point, after reading pages and pages of the Sovereignty Commission files, the records become routine, making you wonder if you, like those who compiled them, have become numb to it all.

The people who are documented in these records were anything but numb. Commission records tell a powerful story; their pages documenting the names of hundreds of African Americans who stood up in the face of intimidation with energy and commitment. It is important to recognize that African Americans led efforts like the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Even the Sovereignty Commission, which would have loved to find Northern white hands pulling the strings, gives local leaders full credit.

Because the agents were so thorough in their spying we now have in black and white the names of hundreds of courageous people who laid there lives on the line for freedom. And there are hundreds, column after column neatly typed by spies who infiltrated local meetings of an army committed to a cause. These were people who did everything from provide housing and food to writing, printing and distributing leaflets to talking with their neighbors about the cause. They came to meetings held at night in churches, knowing they might be bombed or randomly shot or beaten on their way home. They marched and testified and voted.

One of their monuments was the Freedom Ballot. Amidst the papers preserved by the Sovereignty Commission lies a copy of the 1964 Freedom Ballot, names listed in neat rows, their order belying an explosive weapon that was designed to bring down the structure that had stood for so long in the Cotton Belt.

The Freedom Ballot�s intent was to demonstrate that a significant number of Mississippi�s African Americans were not invisible or slaves to the power structure. To minimize the violent segregationists that would be attracted like moths to a flame, organizers mailed the Freedom Ballot over a four-day period. The courage behind the effort remains difficult to imagine, for everyone involved in printing, distributing, filling out and counting the ballots literally put their lives on the line, testifying to a communal strength and resolve determined to rid the state of oppression. When the counting ended, over 50,000 African Americans had sent in ballots, a collective shout for freedom that reverberated across Mississippi to the very halls of Congress.

Today it is easy to dismiss the significance of the Freedom Ballot, but my research tells me it is the only effort I know of by an oppressed people in any country to hold a democratic election in what amounted to a dictatorial state. That singular achievement testifies to the power, resolve and courage of the African Americans who made it happen. It is as important a collective contribution to American democracy as the Boston Tea Party or the winter at Valley Forge and as such deserves a suitable monument.

But there also is in it a lesson for today’s Democratic Party. The Freedom Ballot and other political organizing by groups like the MFDP represented a moral crossroads for the Party. They could continue to side with the segregationists or work toward a new America, one where the playing field was level for all. The results of those years are well-known: of the attempted compromise over the seating of delegates at the 1964 Democratic Convention and the Congressional vote over the results of the Freedom Ballot in the fall of 1965. Those years represented signs that the Democratic Party was losing sight of the ideals of Liberal America.

The question is now, after almost half a century does it have the will to recover what it squandered? Those whose names belong on that monument are still waiting for an answer.

Crossposts: My Left Wing, All Things Democrat, Progressive Historians


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