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Spies of Mississippi: Filmmaker Dawn Porter

Thursday, February 13th, 2014

Last night, I saw Spies of Mississippi, an amazing documentary on the civil rights struggle in the 1960s.

Spies of Mississippi covers ground that’s been mined before, but Porter has done something new here, uncovering the amazing story of  “the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission’s [MSSC] efforts to preserve segregation during the 1950s and ‘60s — when its network of informants spied on over 87,000 Americans — as it covered up violence and murder in order to preserve the status quo.” Clocking in at just an hour, Porter’s documentary is much more than a succession of talking heads; it’s a gripping, compact, and absolutely riveting mix of raw footage from the period, much of it never before seen, recently declassified documents from the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission showing just how rampant racism was in the state, and interviews with the people who lived through the period, and know better than anyone else the reality of the situation. In an interview you can read by clicking here, or on the image above, Porter opens up about the making of Spies of Mississippi. As she told Craig Phillips,

“before I heard this story I thought I knew a lot about the era. That’s what is so wonderful about history — if we look, there are more things to find. Many people know about the FBI’s efforts to undermine the civil rights leaders, but very few people knew of the network established by Mississippi state government. And that’s what really attracted me to this story; this is not a story of a few rogue racist individuals, it’s state government, using taxpayer dollars to deny rights to a group of people based on race. I think it’s a remarkable story about abuse of power and how secrecy is not always a friend to democracy.

I was surprised by so many things, but clearly one of the most shocking was the information about the black informants.  The idea that African Americans would spy for white supremacists probably should not shock me, but it did. Second, I feel like this fills in a piece of the puzzle regarding the tragic deaths of the young civil rights workers [James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael 'Mickey' Schwerner].  They didn’t have an accidental run in with the racist police or the Klan, they were tracked using information from spies.

I was shocked to learn that the State of Mississippi, not just the FBI, used spies to try and intimidate and stop integration. When I learned that some of them were black I wanted to know what would motivate people. Digging into the story, it makes sense that there were complicated feelings in the African American community about the marchers and civil rights activity. There was a lot of fear.”

This is the kind of work we need much more of on television, and the sort of hard-edged and innovative reporting that only PBS seems to offer. In addition, it’s also superbly confident filmmaking, thrilling in its mastery of the medium, and the work of a master filmmaker.

Just minutes after I saw this documentary, I ordered the DVD. This is brilliant, important work.

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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