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Friday, July 30, 2010

Review: Spies of Mississippi (Bowers)

Title: Spies of Mississippi: the true story of the spy network that tried to destroy the Civil Rights Movement
Author: Bowers
Genre: Non-Fiction, American History, Spies
Pages: 128
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars!

In 1956, J.P. Coleman, then-governor of Mississippi, signed House Bill 880 creating the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission.  This secret government agency was put in place to protect Mississippi's right to govern itself.  What that really meant was that they (the governor and other members of the state government) were protecting their ability not to have to comply with the Supreme Court ruling in the 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education, or to stop the practice of segregation.

The spy network that resulted from this bill was controlled by twelve men, who encouraged spying on those people (African-Americans) that were involved in the Civil Rights Movement.  Teachers spied on students, ministers spied on churchgoers, newspaper editors spied on neighbors...usually for money, paid directly by the state.  Spies infiltrated NAACP meetings and not only reported back what they learned, many spies were also charged with ruining the lives of those deemed "most important" to the Civil Rights cause.

I had never heard of this piece of American History, and I can promise you that it was not even a footnote in any of my history textbooks in school.  Bowers has clearly done his research, taking advantage of the primary source documents available.  (The commission left behind 134,000 pages of once-secret documents).  But beyond the obvious research, Bowers has made the subject accessible and highly interesting.  Reading the short chapters, one is intrigued and drawn into the history and the personal stories.  And yet, also appalled that this was allowed to go on for nearly two decades.

Books on spies are typically of the Alex Rider, James Bond, Gallagher Girls genre, where spies are the good guys/girls...heroic adventures attempting to right injustices around the world, with really cool gadgets of course!  Or, you can read books about legendary American spies ("George Washington, Spymaster" and "Harriet Tubman, Secret Agent," both by Thomas Allen).  You do not typically read about villainous spies with evil intent.  Or have it be true.

But it is not just the stories of the Commission and the spies that draw readers here.  Bowers has framed the larger story around the personal stories of those most affected by the spy network: those applying for admission to college hoping to finally integrate it; prominent Civil Rights workers; families forced to flee harassment.  This highly readable book, a definite must-read, is a fascinating account of a frightening period in history.

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