Susan Klopfer, the leading authority on the historiy of the Mississippi civil rights movement is intrigued by the Curtis Flowers story. “Dr. Bean’s group believes that the state’s theory of the murder “… doesn’t fit the actual evidence, and the state manufactured phoney evidence by manipulating, badgering and bribing witnesses,” she writes.
Klopfer’s interest in the Flowers case flows from her fascination with Mississippi history. In a recent interview the journalist and civil rights historian notes that, “In Mississippi, it’s said ‘the past is the present.’ And it was and still is.”
Klopfer is blogging on Friends of Justice and the Flowers case on her Mississippi Sovereignty Commission blog and on a blog inspired by a book she is writing on Emmett Till. Thirty-three years separate the brutal beating of gospel-singing activist Fannie Lou Hamer and the arrest of another gospel-singing native of Montgomery County, Curtis Flowers. Hamer created a national sensation at the 1964 Democratic national convention in Atlantic City by relating the horrific details of her cruel encounter with Winona law enforcement. Lyndon Johnson scheduled an impromptu press conference at the time Hamer was scheduled to speak because he didn’t want “that illiterate woman” antagonizing southern Democrats. But Hamer’s revelations were sp appalling and her delivery so intense that all three major networks carried her remarks in their entirety on the evening news.
I will be writing more about the links between Fannie Lou Hamer and the Flowers story in coming weeks. If you would like a sneak preview check out Ms. Klopfer’s blogging.
Like me, Susan Klopfer is amazed by the culture of silence that persists in Mississippi.
“I was most surprised when discovering the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission,” she recently told a reporter. “It was a spy agency funded by the state from 1955 to 1972 to halt integration. Former military intelligence and FBI agents were hired and they, in turn, used the services of the Klan as enforcers. I was able to go through these papers and trace a money trail to an East Coast foundation that gave money to Mississippi to fight the Civil Rights Act and to fund private, segregated academies in Mississippi. Even today, few Mississippians know this history. I feel very obligated to tell these stories, of true civil rights heroes who have lost their lives.”
The Iowa historian’s master work, Where Rebel’s Roost: Mississippi Civil Rights Revisited demonstrates how opposition to the Massive Resistance movement in Mississippi during the 1950s and 60s led inevitably to harassment and, in most cases, financial ruin. One blessed exception to this rule was the publisher of the Petal Paper in Forest County, Mississippi. When the Citizens’ Council tried to run him out of business, P.D. East published an article with the charming title: “Go to Hell in a Bucket!” A 1958 spoof ad began: “Yes, You too can be Superior. Join the Glorious Citizens Clans.”
According to Klopfer, “The ad went on to list various ‘freedoms’ that would accrue to members: ‘Freedom to yell ‘Nigger’ as much as you please without your conscience bothering you! Freedom to wonder who is pocketing the five dollars you join to pay! Freedom to take a profitable part in the South’s fastest growing business: Bigotry! Freedom to be Superior Without a Brain, Character or Principle!’ . . . This Wonderful Offer Open to White Folk Only.'”
P.D. East survived because he had an ardent following outside Mississippi. Few were so fortunate.
Klopfer has a particular interest in the funding behind the Massive Resistance movement. Much of the money driving the Sovereignty Commission and the Citizens’ Councils, she discovered, came from Wycliffe Draper, a wealthy New York racist and anti-Semite. Draper contributed copiously to Mississippi racist from politicians like Theodore G. Bilbo, the notoriously racist Mississippi governor and senator, his successor, Senator James Eastland to organizers like Robert Patterson, the twisted genius behind the Citizens’ Council movement (and, more recently, the Council of Conservative Citizens).
Klopfer’s 2004 interview with Robert Patterson suggests that the Citizens’ Councils didn’t die out when overt racism became unfashionable, they simply went underground.
Mississippi can’t say “no” to racism without saying “no” to its past. There is no operation that would allow a surgeon to cut away the cancer of officially endorsed public racism without killing the patient. Mississippi wasn’t just a state with a lot of racists; Mississippi’s identity was inextricably tied to racism. Opposition to integration was so widespread and entrenched that for generations it was impossible for Mississippians to stand against the juggernaut without courting financial ruin, physical injury, or even death. The legacy is ghastly and has never been renounced, either formally or informally. No Mississippi politician to this day could publicly confront the enormity of the state’s anti-civil rights record without committing political suicide.
In fact, state senator Lydia Chassaniol did no damage to her electoral prospects by openly revealing her membership in a neo-Nazi group like the Council of Conservative Citizens. Until very recently, the groups’ annual event in Black Hawk, Mississippi was considered so mainstream and uncontroversial that leading politicians from both major parties were regular participants. It has even been suggested that Chassaniol’s address to the CCC last summer was a test balloon designed to see if it was safe to get back in the racist water. Apparently it is. Among Mississippi newspapers, only the Greenwood Commonwealth even acknowledged the Senator’s address. Outside Mississippi, the speech failed to stir a ripple of interest.
Thank God for enterprising historians like Susan Klopfer who have the courage to state the obvious.