Unveiling Mississippi’s Dark Past

By David Drysdale

Jackson Clarion Ledger
March 20, 1998
— Justice delayed is still justice served, says Ellie Dahmer, whose husband was killed more than thirty years ago in a Ku Klux Klan firebombing.  Dahmer believes that the key to bringing her husband’s killers to justice lies in information contained in the archive of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission.  The archive, which was ordered opened this week by a federal judge, consists of more than 124,000 pages of documents from a state agency that intimidated and spied on civil rights activists from 1954 through the 1970’s.  The release comes after a two decade legal battle.

 Following in the wake of the 1994 Byron de la Beckwith conviction, Dahmer is hoping the newly-opened files will generate enough evidence to convict Samuel Bowers of murdering her husband.  Bowers was the head of the Klan in Mississippi during the 1960s and has already served time for the notorious ‘Mississippi Burning’ murder of three students in 1964.  On four separate occasions Bowers went on trial for the murder of Vernon Dahmer, and on each occasion the trial ended in a deadlocked white jury. 

“We are very glad the files have been made public.  We have waited 21 years for them to be released, and now they may help,” Dahmer said. While most of the files are publicly viewable in the Mississippi State Archive in Jackson, the files related to her husband’s murder have been turned over to the district attorney. 

State-Sanctioned Segregation

The Mississippi Sovereignty Commission was created by the State Legislature in 1956 to “protect the sovereignty of the State of Mississippi and her sister states” from federal government interference. The Commission sought to preserve Mississippi’s closed society and to maintain segregated schools. 

 The Commission sponsored an elaborate spy network that gathered both information and misinformation.  On many occasions the Commission defamed civil rights workers, accusing them of having venereal disease, carrying on extramarital affairs, or sympathizing with known communists.  In one 1958 case a black student attempting to enroll at all-white Southern University was framed and sent to prison by the commission for allegedly bootlegging whiskey.  The student, Clyde King, died in prison of kidney cancer several years later.

The Commission was shut down in 1972 and its archive sealed for fifty years.  In 1989 a federal judge ordered that the records be made public, although this process was delayed by legal challenges until the official opening last Tuesday.

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