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.