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Reconstituting Whiteness

The Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission

Jenny Irons

Publication Year: 2010

In Reconstituting Whiteness, sociologist Jenny Irons explores the tactics and legacy of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, an agency of the state that existed from 1956 to 1977 and was devoted exclusively to defending and supporting the institution of segregation. Using a myriad of surveillance and public relations efforts, the commission was unique in its expanse and resistance during a time of change. Going far beyond a mere institutional history, however, Irons uses the commission as a tool to explore the intersection of state-organized defense of white supremacy and the dramatically shifting racial constructs of the civil rights era. Ultimately, the commission failed to protect segregation, but as a state entity, it adapted racism in new terms. Reconstituting Whiteness is an insightful study of the methods Mississippi state government used to move the goal posts of what was considered "decent" and "acceptable" white supremacy and racism, as it raced against time to define whiteness while the boundaries of segregation fell all around it.

Published by: Vanderbilt University Press


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Title Page

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p. iii

Table of Contents

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p. vii


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pp. ix-xii

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pp. xiii-xviii

No signs mark the old city jail in Philadelphia, Mississippi. In an incongruous use of space, the building appears to have been renovated into two apartments, and you would not know what it once was if someone did not tell you, or if you did not remember. I myself forgot, although it had been a jail in my lifetime...

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1. "Nothing to Hide": Whiteness and the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission

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pp. 1-31

On June 19, 1956, the director of the newly formed Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission (MSSC), Ney Gore, wrote to U.S. Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois, a member of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on civil rights legislation. The letter was part of a campaign Gore was waging to persuade the subcommittee to visit Mississippi and gain “first hand knowledge of conditions as they actually exist.”...

I. The Defense of Segregation

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pp. 33-118

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2. The Relational Context of White Resistance

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pp. 35-62

The forces of white backlash that confronted the civil rights movement in Mississippi during the 1950s and 1960s were intertwined and unrelenting. In 1955 the Citizens’ Councils mobilized white professionals and in 1963 the Ku Klux Klan galvanized working-class whites. State officials, from governors to legislators to law enforcement officers, used their respective powers to fight desegregation and create a climate that raised the cost of challenging segregation to great heights...

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3. "The True Facts about Segregation": Denial and the Public Relations Campaign

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pp. 63-89

From 1956 to 1968, the MSSC invested heavily in its public relations program, which was most intensely developed under the leadership of Erle Johnston, who initially joined the organization as public relations director in 1960. The intent of the program was to use public relations strategies to win non-southern sympathy...

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4. Monitoring the Racial Situation: The Identity Work of Social Control

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pp. 90-116

In 1957, the MSSC presented a report to the state legislature that highlighted the major functions of the organization. The report praised the “exceedingly good” race relations in Mississippi and noted, “It can be safely asserted that there has been less trouble and less friction between the races in Mississippi than possibly any other state where similar conditions prevail.”...

II. Resistant Accommodation

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pp. 117-193

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5. Reorganized Relations, Entrenched Hard-Liners

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pp. 119-137

In November 1963, Paul B. Johnson was elected governor on a platform that asked Mississippians to “stand tall with Paul.” His campaign slogan was a reference to his own defiant blocking of the doorway as lieutenant governor against the admission of James Meredith to the University of Mississippi (a substitute act of resistance for Ross Barnett, who could not be there in person)...

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6. Minimizing the Racial Situation: Public Relations and Resistant Accommodation

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pp. 138-157

In October 1964, on the heels of Freedom Summer, Erle Johnston detailed his plans for a revamped MSSC in a memo to Governor Paul Johnson. Although he had begun a public relations campaign in Mississippi, speaking to civic and business groups to encourage law and order during a time of resistant accommodation, he did not abandon the hope of rejuvenating a program aimed at non-southern audiences...

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7. "Determined to Perpetuate Itself": Continuity in Investigations despite Change

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pp. 158-191

By 1964, the MSSC’s investigative program was operating at full force. Although Governor Paul Johnson did not officially call an MSSC meeting until 1966, director Erle Johnston maintained the organization, passing along reports and memos to the governor’s assistant. The MSSC continued to monitor civil rights organizations and “racial agitators,” although Johnston had written a new policy directive...

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Conclusion: Legitimacy, Whiteness, and Racism

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pp. 193-201

Histories and analyses of social movement repression often focus on the brutal or visible acts undertaken to thwart change. At the very least, they focus on action, on strategies undertaken to reduce or control the impact of collective action. This book argues that in analyses of movement repression, we need to pay more attention to meaning. In particular, we need to pay more attention to how meaning is achieved and reconstituted even as structural change occurs...


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pp. 203-235


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pp. 237-243


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pp. 245-260

E-ISBN-13: 9780826516879
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826516855
Print-ISBN-10: 0826516858

Page Count: 280
Publication Year: 2010

OCLC Number: 709606132
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Reconstituting Whiteness

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Mississippi -- Race relations -- History -- 20th century.
  • Mississippi -- Politics and government -- 1951-.
  • States' rights (American politics) -- History -- 20th century.
  • Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission -- History.
  • White supremacy movements -- Mississippi -- History -- 20th century.
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