Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the
Mississippi Sovereignty Commission
Published in Left History, Vol. 8, No. 2, Spring 2003, pp. 135-144.
View the editorial page of
the Jackson Daily News of August 18, 1966 for an article about
Jo Freeman in Mississippi.
On Thursday, August 18, 1966 I entered the Bellflower Church in Grenada,
Mississippi, which the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)
was using as its headquarters for a voter registration project. I had
been a fieldworker for SCLC for over a year but in Mississippi only
As soon as I walked through the door, the other workers asked me if
I had seen that morning's Jackson Daily News. I quickly discovered
that "Mississippi's Greatest Newspaper," as it called itself,
had devoted two-thirds of its editorial page to an expose of my activities,
mostly during my senior year at the University of California at Berkeley.
"Professional Agitator Hits All Major Trouble Spots" blared
the headline. It was accompanied by five photos -- front, side, hair
up and hair down, with and without glasses -- including one taken of
me speaking from the second floor balcony of Sproul Hall during the
big student sit-in on December 3, 1964, which resulted in 773 arrests.
Citing the 1965 report of the California Senate's Factfinding SubCommittee
on UnAmerican Activities (SUAC) as its primary source, the editorial
didn't call me a Communist. It said I worked with Communists (Bettina
Aptheker, a Berkeley student who admitted her Party membership in November
1965, six months after I graduated) and was a member of a student organization
for young Communists (SLATE, a lefty/liberal student group that was
not Communist). It also informed its readers that I was "active
in the Free Speech Movement" (true) and a "sparkplug in the
Filthy Speech Movement" (false).
It was the five photos, not the numerous false allegations, that prompted
Hosea Williams, director of Southern projects for SCLC, to put me on
the next bus out of town. "This thing makes you Klan bait,"
he said. "We don't need more martyrs right now."
For years I just assumed that this was the work of the FBI, done to
rid the project of one worker and to publicize its view that Communists
were behind the Civil Rights Movement. It had all the earmarks of a
planted story and clearly required connections between California and
Mississippi. My belief was reinforced many years later when the FBI's
cointelpro actions against the Civil Rights Movement in general and
its persecution of Dr. Martin Luther King in particular were revealed.
Not until 1997 did I discover that the actual source of the editorial
and photos was the Mississippi
Sovereignty Commission, an official state
agency of which I was completely unaware in 1966. And only after extensive
research did I realize that I and others like me were not just foot
soldiers in the civil rights movement, but cannon fodder in the Cold
The Mississippi Sovereignty Commission
Sovereignty Commission (MSC) was created by the Mississippi legislature
on March 29, 1956 and empowered to
perform any and all acts and things necessary and proper to protect
the sovereignty of the State of Mississippi, and her sister states,
from encroachment thereon by the Federal Government,... (Miss.Code
§ 3-1-11, 1972)
Created in response to the Supreme Court's 1954 decision declaring segregated
schools to be unconstitutional, its purpose was to utilize the authority
and money of the State of Mississippi to maintain racial segregation.
Its means were investigation, disruption of civil rights activities,
and public relations. The MSC paid investigators to collect information
on persons suspected of sympathy with the goals of the Civil Rights
Movement and publicized whatever it thought was derogatory. Suspects
did not have to be in Mississippi.
From 1963 to 1968 the MSC's director was Erle Johnston, who was also
publisher of the weekly Scott County Times in Forest, Mississippi.
While Johnston had been a newspaper reporter for a few years after graduating
from Grenada High School in 1935, his real career was as a publicist
for numerous candidates for public office. In these jobs he became skilled
at interpreting and creating information in order to make news. In 1960
Gov. Ross Barnett asked his former publicist to take charge of public
relations for the MSC. On April 1, 1963 Johnston was promoted to Director.
Within the spectrum of white Mississippi politics, Johnston was a moderate
on race; a dedicated segregationist, he thought violence was ineffective.
In his eyes the White Citizens Council and the NAACP were both extremists.
Until his retirement on July 1, 1968, Johnston promoted this view of
segregation and race relations throughout the country, even as the MSC
funneled state money to the White Citizens Council and spied on the
On April 17, 1973 Governor William L. Waller vetoed the MSC's appropriations
bill. Lacking funds to pay staff or rent, it closed on June 30. Its
files, containing an estimated 120,000 names, were transferred to the
highway patrol. There was a great deal of legislative debate on what
to do with the MSC files, ranging from total destruction to public release.
When the MSC was officially dissolved on March 4, 1977 the legislature
ordered the files transferred to the Department of Archives and History
(MDAH) and closed until 2027. By then some records had been destroyed
or lost. The remaining six file cabinets plus a few boxes were sealed
in the MDAH vault where they sat for two decades.
After twenty years of litigation by the Mississippi chapter of the ACLU
and several federal court orders, the files were opened for public inspection
on March 17, 1998. MDAH staff prepared an index of the folders and the
80,000 names in them which the Mississippi ACLU put on its website.
The documents themselves were scanned into a computer, but are only
viewable at MDAH.
About three quarters of the material in the files consists of public
documents, such as newspaper clippings and government reports. The rest
includes reports from investigators and information and photographs
supplied by informants. There are also letters to employers asking them
to fire employees who sympathized with desegregation, to colleges asking
for investigations of students, to draft boards to call up activists,
and financial records of the MSC.
As a concession to some litigants who did not want "misleading
information" in their files publicly disclosed, the court ordered
that advertisements be run in the Wall Street Journal, the New
York Times, and USA Today inviting anyone who suspected their
activities in Mississippi had been monitored to apply for a copy of
their files. Those designated as "victims," but not those
qualifying as "state actors," could request that their personal
files be closed, or they could ask that "rebuttal" information
be included. When the deadline had passed, only 42 persons had done
A friend of mine, an "Ole Miss" alumna who knew about the
MSC, sent me an ad from the January 27, 1997 issue of the Wall Street
Journal. In my MSC file I found the source of the "information"
the Jackson Daily News had used in its August 18, 1966 editorial.
It wasn't the FBI.
MSC had its own informant on the Berkeley campus. From 1964 through
1967 Edgar Downing regularly supplied the MSC with information on Berkeley
students. Described by an MSC investigator as a "professional informer"
with a "Communist record for approximately 24 years," Downing
was a native of McComb, Mississippi, who lived and worked as a welder
in Long Beach, California, some 500 miles south of Berkeley. His avocation
was collecting information on "leftists" of varying stripes
and selling it.
Nov. 25, 26, and 27, 1964 the San Francisco Examiner ran stories
on Communist connections in the Free Speech Movement (FSM) from information
supplied by the FBI. The FSM's most prominent spokesperson, Mario Savio,
was not a Communist but he had worked in McComb, Mississippi the summer
before. The publicity probably lured Downing to Berkeley.
On December 1, 1964, the day before the FSM began the big sit-in in
Sproul Hall, Downing phoned Johnston to offer him "valuable information
concerning communist activity in Mississippi." After checking his
references (two Mississippi Mayors), Johnston agreed to pay him $100
for "travel expenses."
had already been to Berkeley to take photos of the November 20 student
vigil of the Regents meeting and the November 23 FSM rally and "abortive"
sit-in. He returned to take more photos in Sproul Plaza on December
3 during the real sit-in. When he reached Mississippi he gave these
to the MSC along with copies of publications by and about the FSM. On
and around the edges of the photos Downing identified the people in
During the three years he informed for the MSC, Downing made more trips
to Berkeley and to Mississippi. He sold the MSC photos he took at campus
rallies or Berkeley marches on October 15-16, 1965 and October 29, 1966.
He sometimes wrote to the MSC director or spoke to its investigators.
He also traveled to Grenada, Mississippi in August of 1966, where he
took photos of the demonstrations that SCLC was conducting to bring
federal registrars to the county, including some of me.
In addition to myself, he seemed particularly interested in providing
information on Mario Savio and Bettina Aptheker. Although Bettina never
worked in Mississippi, there are more entries under her name in the
MSC index than any other Berkeley student. Most of these are to publications
or newspaper stories which mention her, but some are to Downing's reports.
Steve Weissman and Jerry Rubin get a few mentions, as do Dusty Miller,
Brian Turner, David Jessup and Kenneth Cloke. All of these were Berkeley
students in the 1960s, but not all were involved in the FSM. None of
the latter worked in the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement. Cloke
worked with the the Law Students Civil Rights Research Council (LSCRRC)
in the summer of 1964 and Weissman toured Southern campuses in the
Spring of 1965 to speak about the FSM and to promote an anti-war March
in Washington, D.C.
In the summer of 1964, two years before my arrival, a couple Berkeley
students had traveled to Mississippi to help register local blacks to
vote and to work in Freedom Schools. Sponsored by a coalition of four
major civil rights organizations, the summer project was intended to
break the back of white supremacy in the worst of the Southern states.
At its heart was the Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee (SNCC),
which was formed in 1960 to co-ordinate sit-ins and other direct action
projects. SNCC was run by its field staff, who lived off of subsistence
pay and worked in Southern counties. It had a small office staff in
Atlanta. "Friends of SNCC" chapters throughout the country
raised money and publicized its work. This network recruited over a thousand students for Freedom Summer.
Mario Savio was one of the Cal recruits. A 21-year old Junior from Queens,
New York, he was in his second semester at Berkeley when he became involved
in the 1963-64 Bay Area Civil Rights Movement. He learned about Freedom Summer
while spending a night in the San Francisco jail with 166 other demonstrators
arrested for sitting-in at the Sheraton Palace hotel on March 7, 1964.
The summer experience changed him profoundly. He went from being a shy
do-gooder with a bad stutter, who had barely passed the screening committee
for Freedom Summer volunteers, to an articulate activist who quickly
became the de facto leader of the Free Speech Movement.
Although the Berkeley students who became active in the FSM in the
fall were inspired by the Civil Rights Movement, very few had worked
in Mississippi. By comparing lists of Freedom Summer volunteers with
active in the FSM, I've found only two: Mario Savio and Malcolm Zaretsky,
a grad student in biophysics who was chairman of campus Friends of
and in charge of recruiting Berkeley students for the 1964 Mississippi
Berkeley students didn't need Freedom Summer to sensitize them to civil
rights or teach them how to protest. Those lessons had been learned
in prior years. In 1960 Berkeley students were among those washed down
the steps of the San Francisco City Hall during demonstrations at hearings
held by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). In 1963-64,
they were among the thousands who picketed and 500 who were arrested
at several demonstrations protesting race discrimination by Bay Area
employers. I couldn't go South for Freedom Summer because I had to go
to trial in July for an April arrest, and knew of others with the same
Several Berkeley students went to Mississippi as civil rights workers
before Freedom Summer. Five were among the Freedom Riders who rode
Jackson, Mississippi in 1961 to challenge segregated interstate bus
stations. Mike Miller, '58, a founder of SLATE who was also active
the student government, worked for SNCC in Mississippi in 1963. But
the 1964 Free Speech Movement did the MSC take a particular interest
in Cal, or SLATE, as a source of outside agitators.
The Anti-Communist Network
Since the Civil Rights Movement arose in the South when the Cold War
and its crusade against domestic Communism was in full swing, Southern
segregationists were particularly anxious to hang the Communist albatross
around the movement's neck. Southerners maintained that Communists ran
the Civil Rights Movement behind the scenes and raised money to support
its workers in order to promote violence, racial hatred and disorder.
Despite their distaste for the federal government, Southern politicians
quickly endorsed the views of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover that the
movement was infiltrated by Communists, quoting his reports to Congress
which identified Communists, children of Communists and associates of
Communists whether spotted in demonstrations or just making public statements
sympathetic to the Civil Rights Movement. Southern newspapers eagerly
published information from "intelligence sources" that named
such people, without disclosing that it came from the FBI.
The Berkeley Free Speech Movement, although it took place 2,000 miles
away, was grist for their mill. California had a particularly well developed
network of anti-Communists, linking private individuals and public officials.
While it was entrenched in Southern California, even Berkeley -- despite
its appellation as Red Square West -- had some dedicated right-wingers.
One of these was Charles Fox, a graduate student in linguistics, who
wrote regularly to the student newspaper on behalf of a small group
called Students Associated Against Totalitarianism.
Fox left Cal in the early sixties to set up shop as a professional anti-Communist,
dedicated to exposing Commiesymps in the Bay Area. He edited Tocsin,
"The West's Leading Anti-Communist Weekly," a four page sheet
that described all of the arcane connections Fox could find between
local events, institutions and personnel, and Communists, children of
Communists, friends of Communists, tenants or houseguests of Communists,
and even those who attended social events attended by Communists. Fox
did not limit himself to proven, open or even accused members of the
Communist Party, or distinguish among adherents of the various socialist
sects, most of whom were mortal enemies of each other.
On October 1-2, 1964, several thousand students held a police car hostage
in Sproul Plaza to protest restrictions on political activity on campus
and the arrest of someone engaged in such activity. Berkeley Chancellor
Edward W. Strong told the press that we were "professional demonstrators"
who had spent the summer in Mississippi where we learned to use direct
action tactics. The press also quoted President Clark Kerr as saying
that the demonstrating students, or at least a "hard core"
of us, had Communist sympathies. Kerr was already labeled as "soft"
on Communism in public documents that the MSC had collected. These statements
by leading liberals who were close to the campus dispute fit very well
with the anti-Communist belief that civil rights activists and student
protestors were controlled and manipulated by Communists.
Southern segregationists fished for connections between events, incidents
and people, no matter how flimsy, which supported their belief in Communist
control. In the middle of November 1964 MSC Director Erle Johnston sent
Charles Fox $10.00 for a one year subscription to Tocsin. The
lead article in the November 14, 1964 issue described the "Free
Speech Leader at UC," next to a photo of Mario speaking into a
microphone. Readers learned that Mario was a "defiant martyr,"
who had participated in the Sheraton Palace Hotel demonstration as well
as that around the police car in Sproul Plaza. "He worked in McComb,
Miss., last summer in "civil rights" activity, and is a Berkeley
representative of the Friends of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating
Committee, a militant "rights" group," the story said.
Johnston clipped this article and put a copy into a special folder he
labeled "Mario Savio."
Johnston used the information on Mario in a December 28, 1964 memo that
he sent to Mississippi Congressmen. The memo was prompted by a petition
signed by 140 Freedom Summer volunteers earlier that month which asked
for the abolition of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC)
"because it serves as an instrument of segregation".... through
"false accusations" which promote "among the white community
in Mississippi the belief that civil rights protest is synonymous with
subversion and treason" while "violence and economic intimidation
against Negroes and civil rights workers [are] 'patriotic acts'."
Mario was one of six signatories described by Johnston; a description
that came straight from Tocsin. On February 5, 1965 he sent the
memo and petition to U.S. Senator James O. Eastland (D. MS), chairman
of the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, along with a list of summer
volunteers "as of August 1964" and a suggestion that "some
of these names are in the files" of the Senate or House Committees
Johnston renewed his Tocsin subscription in 1965, and even gave
Fox additional funds for which he received copies of Tocsin back
to 1963. Issues from that year through 1967 are in the "Tocsin"
folder of the MSC archives. Some articles were copied for other folders,
which is one reason Bettina Aptheker has her own folder (shared with
her father, Herbert Aptheker, a well-known Communist Party member) and
many entries in the MSC Index under her name. She and Mario are the
only two Berkeley students who have their own folders.
Although only five Berkeley students signed the 1964 petition to abolish
HUAC, hundreds of Berkeley students are in the MSC Index, including
all 773 persons arrested in Sproul Hall on December 3. Their names and
addresses are listed on pages 103-113 of the Thirteenth Report
of the California Senate Fact-Finding Subcommittee on Un-American Activities,
published by the state legislature on June 18, 1965. There's no memo
stating how Johnston got this particular document, or why only select
pages with certain names marked were put into Downing's folder. But
given Johnston's clear interest in the UC demonstrations and the extent
of his California connections, it's not surprising either. Nor is it
surprising that "Communism" is what Johnston picked to emphasize
when he publicized my presence in Mississippi.
The Jackson Daily News Editorial
On August 11, 1966, while SCLC was leading demonstrations in Grenada
every day, Johnston paid Downing $100 for "valuable information
and a wide variety of photographs of some of the professional agitators
who have been in Grenada and Jackson, and, also, at other riots and
demonstrations in the nation." In a Memo to File, Johnston records
that on that same day Jimmy Ward, editor of the Jackson Daily News,
"called to see if we could furnish him documented information about
one or more of the professional agitators who are now working in Mississippi
and have been on the scene in other riots throughout the nation."
Given Johnston's experience as a publicist who often placed editorials
and stories, it's more likely that he phoned Ward and wrote the memo
as cover. He "advised Mr. Ward we ... would prefer the Sovereignty
Commission not be identified as the source."
following day Johnston sent Ward a draft editorial, along with "information
and some photos," -- most likely select pages from SUAC. The draft
editorial was craftily written to link "Communism," with "civil
rights" and "outside agitator" from "Berkeley"
at the expense of facts.
was also written with a fine eye to avoid any legal consequences. He
did not call me a Communist, which would have been libel per se. He
said I was a member of a Communist organization, worked with Communists
and advanced Communist causes. Of course these were not true, and other
documents in the MSC files indicate that Erle Johnston knew that I had
no association with the Communist Party or Communist front organizations.
I was active in the Free Speech Movement as the representative of the
University Young Democrats. If Downing had listened to the speech he
photographed me making at the November 23, 1964 FSM rally, he would
have known that Bettina and I were in different factions. Bettina was
a member of the Communist Party. Her letter to the student newspaper
printed on November 9, 1965 admitting this was clipped and put into
her MSC file. But she was the only CP member in the FSM leadership;
even the FBI acknowledged that barely a "handful" of Communists
were involved in the FSM at all levels.
Nor was it true that "[t]he California Senate sub-committee termed
SLATE as an organization for young Communists." SUAC specifically
said the contrary, though it did add that SLATE "has become
without explaining what that meant. I was active in SLATE in 1963-64
-- where I met Mario Savio -- but if Communists dominated this student
group they did so out of sight. As an organization concerned with
civil rights and civil liberties SLATE was skewed to the left, but
was neither narrow nor sectarian. SLATE was issue-oriented without
political litmus tests. None of the people I knew in SLATE were ever
identified as Communists in the California Senate reports, Tocsin,
or the mainstream newspaper stories to which the FBI leaked information,
though a couple were the children of former Communists.
Thirteenth Report was only the latest attack by SUAC on the University;
for two decades it had accused UC of harboring subversives. Because
the FSM made national headlines, 161 of 195 pages critiqued the "University
of California." The Report particularly singled out President
Clark Kerr for derision. When he challenged its chairman to waive the
legislative immunity which protected him from libel suits, the chairman
demurred. Neither Kerr's reply to the Thirteenth Report nor any
of the prior reports are in the MSC files.
Tellingly, Mario is not named in the Jackson Daily News editorial,
though he was our only national figure. Instead the editorial identifies
William Mandel, then a middle-aged resident of Berkeley with no University
affiliation, as a "self-identified Communist" on the "Free
Speech Movement Executive Committee." Mandel was known to few in
the FSM and his influence, if any, was minor. I didn't even recognize
his name when I read it in the 1966 editorial and he's barely mentioned,
if at all, in books on the FSM. Even the FBI files on the FSM pay him
scant attention. Long before the FSM, he was kicked out of the Communist
Party. His son Robert, who also had no Cal connection, was a Freedom
Summer volunteer. Mario, though quite critical of American society and
politics, was not a Communist. From the documents collected in which
his name appears, the MSC most likely knew this. It couldn't use him
to link "Communism" and "civil rights." Instead
it used Bettina as the link, even though she had no connection to Mississippi.
What we learn from the material the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission
collected on the Berkeley Free Speech Movement tells us little about
the FSM and not much about the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi.
But it speaks volumes about how the Cold War and the anti-Communism
crusade shaped the political environment in which these two movements
operated in the 1960s. Name-calling is a normal weapon in political
clashes but it seldom carries a governmental imprimatur. The existence
of legislative committees like HUAC and SUAC put a bludgeon in the hands
of segregationists. They used it to invoke outside authority to undermine
our work. Although neither the U.S. Congress nor the California legislature
supported segregation, and both approved of voter registration, their
committee investigations and reports were used to knock some of us out
of the battle, even when their facts and their interpretations were
At the August 1966 meeting of the MSC, Erle Johnston got approval "to
concentrate on 'subversives' operating in the state" (Johnston,
300). In his annual report to the Governor, he bragged about the Jackson
Daily News editorial and the publicity that had chased me out of
in this article comes primarily from documents in the MSC files at
MDAH. Some of this was sent to me in 1997 when I requested my own
files pursuant to court order. The rest was found during research
at MDAH on November 20-22, 2000. The following sources were also useful,
and are publicly available.
American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi, Inc., v. Finch,
638 F.2d 1336 (5th Cir. 1981).
American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi, Inc.,v. Fordice,
969 F.Supp. 403 (S.D. Miss. 1994).
American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi, Inc., v. Mabus,
719 F. Supp. 1345 (S.D. Miss. 1989).
American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi, Inc., v. State of Mississippi,
911 F.2d 1066 (5th Cir. 1990).
California Legislature, Un-American Activities in California, Thirteenth
Report of the Senate Fact-Finding Subcommittee on Un-American Activities,
Sacramento, Calif.: Senate of the State of California, 1965.
Dickerson James, Dixie's Dirty Secret, Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe,
Johnston, Erle, Mississippi's Defiant Years, 1953-1973, An Interpretive
Documentary with Personal Experiences, Forest, MS: Lake Harbor
Rowe-Sims, Sarah, "The Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission:
An Agency History," 61:1 Journal of Mississippi History,
Spring 1999, pp. 29-58.
I'd like to thank the following for their advice and assistance:
Elizabeth and Dave Cox, Washington, D.C.
Amy Hackett, Brooklyn, NY.
Jan Hillegas, Jackson, MS.
Doug McAdam, Stanford University, CA.
Mike Miller, Pacifica, CA.
William Roberts, Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley, CA.
Sarah Rowe-Sims, MDAH, Jackson, MS.
Michael Shapiro, Brooklyn, NY.
Malcolm Zaretsky, U.C. Berkeley, CA.
Pat Lynden, New York, NY.
Copyright (c) 2001 by Jo Freeman