Spies of Mississippi: The True Story of the Spy Network that Tried to Destroy the Civil Rights Movement by Rick Bowers. National Geographic Society (2010). Copy provided by friend.
It’s About: In 1956, the Governor of Mississippi, J.P. Coleman, signed the executive order to create the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission. The Commission was “a special agency that would preserve the state’s ‘sovereignty’ — that is, its right to govern itself without undue interference from the federal government or private pressure groups.” What was the federal government and private groups doing that created a need for such a commission? Advocating for the end of segregation. In order to preserve segregation, “the Commission would be granted extraordinary powers, including the power to investigate private citizens and organizations, to maintain secret files, to force witnesses to testify, and even make arrests.”
The Good: Yes, this is the story of how Mississippi was so afraid of desegregation and equality that it created a secret police force to stop it from happening and to preserve segregation. In short chapters, made all the more powerful by just how few words are used, the reader is taken from the start of the Commission to its recruiting spies to the bloody, deadly consequences of its actions, both directly and indirectly.
I read this after They Called Themselves the K.K.K., and the two titles complement each other nicely, with one being about a private group’s attempts to defend and enforce segregation and the other about a state’s attempt to do the same “legally.”
This is a perfect introduction to the risks to those involved in the Civil Rights Movement, as well as a great nonfiction book for so-called reluctant readers. But be prepared! Teens are going to come back to you, asking to learn more about Medgar Evers, Mickey Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and the other people and events described in this book. Be prepared with other books, films, and documentaries. Be prepared to deal with the disbelief and anger that a government would do this. Be prepared to discuss why people would spy on and betray each other. Be prepared as readers wonder what their own families did (or didn’t do) some sixty years ago.
On the short list for the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults.