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The Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission is perhaps the most infamous publically funded segregationist organization of the 1950s and 1960s Jim Crow South. While much has been said about the Sovereignty Commission in the historiography of the civil rights movement, few scholars have tackled the organization itself head-on. Yasuhiro Katagiri provides a detailed accounting of its actions in his book, The Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission: Civil Rights and States Rights (2001), but, until Jenny Irons's work, no one had produced an in-depth analysis of the commission and its legacy.
As a sociologist, Irons is particularly concerned with meaning and racial privilege. In this case, she analyzes the Sovereignty Commission, its agents, and its activities to reveal how whiteness was both constructed and reconstructed in the face of challenges by the collective action of the civil rights movement. Ultimately, she shows that, through the "affirmation" of whiteness and the "denigration" [End Page 303] of blackness, the commission played a key role in maintaining "racial privilege and power" (pp. xv, 20). Despite the changes brought on by the advances of the movement, these white leaders were able to adapt strategies of opposition that proved quite effective.
Irons divides her book into two parts. The first examines the role of the Sovereignty Commission under the regimes of Governor James P. Coleman and Governor Ross Barnett, roughly 1956-64. She begins here because of the proximity of these white leaders to a more virulent brand of racism that was espoused by the likes of the Citizens' Council, the most important private segregationist watchdog group. Although she notes that Coleman was recognized as a more moderate politician within the realm of segregationists than was Barnett, she correctly indicates that both of these gubernatorial administrations were relatively secure in their segregationist positions and were not forced to respond to the civil rights movement in any new kind of way. After 1964, she argues that the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act forced the state of Mississippi, beginning with Governor Paul Johnson, to reconsider how it tried to limit African American access to political, social, and economic opportunities. Even though she wants to claim black agency and repeatedly asserts that African Americans forced change upon the South through their actions, her story has a top-down approach.
As Irons shows, the Sovereignty Commission helped to craft the "resistant accommodation" to the civil rights movement that came to dominate white southern conservatism for the rest of the twentieth century. In this regard, her work fits in nicely with the best historiography on the topic, such as Joseph Crespino's In Search of Another Country (2009). In his description, segregationists developed a strategy of "color-blind" politics in Mississippi, whereby they explicitly avoided issues of race but implicitly were determined to maintain white power. In helping us to understand this phenomenon, Irons's book is an important addition to the scholarship on racial privilege and oppression.
Irons did leave room for others to pick up on her groundwork. In particular, she admits that, because she depends almost entirely [End Page 304] on Sovereignty Commission records for her primary research, she does not include the voices of black people, and she misses how they envisioned and were affected by the Sovereignty Commission. Interestingly, she observes that the commission did not usually engage in comprehensive investigations and its resulting reports on various cases during the movement were primarily consumed by commission members themselves. In the end, the most damaging work that the commission seemed to do, according to Irons, was "denying" that local blacks had any agency during the movement and "attributing blame" to outside agitators—a story that was familiar to and accepted by most white Southerners (p. 102). One is left to wonder how big of an impact this really had on the black community and the movement.
As Irons points out, meaning is of the utmost importance in understanding how a "dominant group" maintains and reconstitutes power in the face of "structural change" (p.193). She...