Segregation in the Jim Crow South was about two things: political and economic power, and sex.
The entire system was designed to keep blacks from power in government and business, and black men from intimacy with white women.
This had obvious negative effects on the South’s black population. African Americans were subjected to harsh, even brutal treatment for doing such simple things as trying to vote. But there were negative impacts on white Southerners as well.
White Southerners also had to adhere to the South’s code of behavior, or suffer consequences. This is illustrated in a true story from the book Devil’s Sanctuary: An Eyewitness History of Mississippi Hate Crimes. The book is co-authored by Alex A. Alston, Jr., former president of the Mississippi State Bar Association, and journalist James L. Dickerson.
The book details instances of the horrific oppression of Mississippi blacks by white Mississippians and all aspects of the state’s governmental and social institutions.
One of those governmental institutions was the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, a quasi-independent spy agency created in 1956 to Mississippi against integration efforts by the federal government. The Sovereignty Commission was basically Mississippi’s Big Brother, and had its eyes out for anything that might imperil white supremacy.
This is a poignant and somewhat scary excerpt from the book:
Early in 1956, Mississippi Governor J. P. Coleman sent a bill to the Mississippi legislature to create a super-secret spy agency designed to protect the state from the encroaching power of the federal government. Under the provisions of the bill, the commission was empowered to “perform any and all acts and things deemed necessary to protect the sovereignty of the State of Mississippi, and her sister states, from encroachment.”
The commission was given the authority to examine the records and documents of any citizen and it was provided with broad-ranging subpoena power that included the authority to enforce obedience “by fine or imprisonment” at the discretion of the commission. It was designed to operate independantly of state govenment, when necessary, and permitted to solicit and use private funds to carry out covert operations.
…while taking the oath of office, Coleman had brought attention to the commission by saying, “I have not the slightest fear that four years hence when my successor assumes his official oath that the seperation of races in Mississippi will be left intact.”
When the Sovereignty Commission received word in 1964 that a white woman in Grenada, Mississippi had given birth to a baby of suspicious racial origins, investigator Tom Scarbrough was sent to the small town to conduct an investigation. After touching base with his initial source. who informed him that the 38 year old woman had been having an affair with a 31 year old motel employee who was black, Scarbrough met with the local sheriff, who expressed relief at seeing the investigator in town, since he wasn’t sure what to do about the situation. In his report Scarbrough wrote that the sheriff had told him that the people in Grenada were disturbed about the rumors, all the more since the (woman) and her husband and were from respectable families.
Scarbrough decided the easiest way to solve the dilemma would be for the sheriff to examine the baby to determine if it had a black father. The sheriff agreed. He called the woman and talked her into stopping by the office. Under questioning from Scarbrough, the woman, who was in a legal dispute with her husband over custody of their two sons, denied having an affair with a black man but admitted to having an affair with a white an who worked at the hotel. Scarbrough told her that the sheriff was sympathetic to her situation and would do his best to squelch the rumors if it turned out that the child was not black. He suggested that she grant the sheriff permission to examine the baby. The woman said she had no objection to that.
After arranging a time for a home visit, the woman left and Scarbrough went to the motel to interview the black man rumored to be the father. He asked him point blank if he had ever had sex with the white woman.
“No, sir,” answered the black man.
The next morning the sheriff went to view the baby. When he returned to the office, Scarbrough was waiting for him. He said he had seen the baby but wasn’t sure about the child’s parentage. He asked Scarbrough if he would mind taking a look at the baby. The two men returned to the anxious woman’s apartment.
We both looked at the baby again and I was looking at the child’s fingernails and the end of its fingers very closely when she remarked, ‘I know what you’re thinking, but that baby is not part Negro. Its father is an Italian,’ ” Scarbrough said in his report. “After viewing the child I had a weak feeling in the pit of my stomach and the sheriff expressed he felt otherwise. We both agreed we were not qualified to say it was a Negro child, but we could say it was not 100% Caucasian.”
Scarbrough returned to the hotel and shared his conclusions with the black man’s employer. “[The employer] stated there was nothing he could do except to dismiss [the black man] from his employ,” he said in his report. “What disposition will be made [of the black man] is yet to be seen.” He noted that the white motel owners had a lot of trust and confidence in their black employee and “in all probability would not believe anything against him. This I found to be pretty well the opinion of all the people to whom I talked.”
This is stuff that was happening in Mississippi in 1964.
I cite this to show that, it wasn’t just the most visible or violent things, like the murder of Emmett Till, that made Mississippi segregation so horrible. It was the Orwellian intrusion into the lives of ordinary people that made this state’s version of Jim Crow so overwhelming and de-humanizing.
This seems unthinkably un-American today, but that was the America of those times.
It’s no wonder that Mississippi was the most feared state for black people through the end of the civil rights struggles. And it led singer Nina Simone to write her famous song Mississippi Goddam.