"In the 1960s, my husband helped the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission de-fund the pioneer Head Start programs in our state," said Courtney Tannehill, the widow of former Neshoba Democrat editor Jack Tannehill, "and he worked to promote the Commission's segregationist agenda to Mississippi industrialists."
"I am here today to acknowledge the truth about my husband's participation in Mississippi's brutal racist regime," Mrs. Tannehill continued in her address to a group of African-American and white community leaders in Philadelphia, MS. "If we cannot tell the truth about our past, we cannot establish the trust necessary for meaningful reconciliation and improved race relations in Neshoba County today, in 2006."
Sadly, I am putting words in Mrs. Tannehill's mouth. Though Courtney Tannehill is a member of the Philadelphia Coalition, the quotation above was an exercise in wishful thinking about what it might look like if the organization were truly engaged in racial reconciliation.
In June 2005, as reporters anticipating the trial of of Edgar Ray Killen streamed into Philadelphia, MS, current editor and publisher of the Neshoba Democrat and co-chair of the Philadelphia Coalition, James E. Prince III, bragged that
[t]he editor of The Neshoba Democrat is one of the first persons these reporters seek out. They came to talk to Stanley Dearman (still do) and to Jack Tannehill before him.
Since the indictment of Edgar Ray Killen in January there have been so many reporters that I can’t possibly keep track of all the conversations and interviews.
While Jack Tannehill's widow did not ever say the words attributed to her, above, there is indeed evidence that her late husband worked with the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, the state spy agency, to enlist business owners in "solving problems" associated with the Civil Rights Act and to keep Mississippi's Black children undernourished and undereducated.
On February 26, 1965, Jack Tannehill wrote a letter on Neshoba Democrat letterhead to Erle Johnston, Director of the State Sovereignty Commission (emphasis added):
On behalf of the East Mississsippi Management Club, I want to express our appreciation to for the very timely talk you gave us last Tuesday night. Without exception, every one of the 28 members present said they thoroughly enjoyed the program and learned so much of the Sovereignty Commission's work which they never realized meant so much to them and this state.
Information on the Commission's work and its policies and accomplishments was all new to many of the group. It caused them to realize that the Commission was sincerely interested in helping industrialists, as well as others, without being radical and advocating policies which might be detrimental to our progress.
As you know, this was a meeting of industrial management of east central Mississippi towns and cities at which the members discuss mutual problems in an informal manner. Every thing said and discussed is strictly 'off the record'.
Many of the members asked me to say that they felt now they had a place to get some assistance in solving problems which might arise from pressure groups and the recent enactment of the Civil Rights Act.
In short, those present appreciate the image you have been and are creating for our state. As one put it, "I'll have to change my opinion of the Sovereignty Commission's philosophy since listening to its director talk."
Erle, thanks again, and I hope you will return for this or another type meeting here in the near future.
Jack L. Tannehill
cc: Gov. Paul Johnson
While I often emphasize the Sovereignty Commission's spying activities, and its direct assistance to White Citizens' Council and the Klan, the Commission was also a public relations agency. The Sovereignty Commission emphasized its "dual function" in an undated informational pamphlet, which I believe was intended for the members of the MS state legislature in 1966:
The Sovereignty Commission has operated a dual function of investigation and indexing subversive groups and individuals operating in the state and also a public relations program to correct false statements about Mississippi and enhance the state's prestige to offset impressions made by a few regrettable incidents of violence. Information about subversives has been exploited on occasion to reduce their effectiveness.
In its public relations function, the Sovereignty Commission cultivated contacts with the editors of many of the major newspapers in Mississippi—including Jack Tannehill at the Neshoba Democrat. The meetings, such as the one organized by Tannehill, above, were far from unusual. Numerous Sovereignty Commission documents detail major industry and business leaders serving in official advisory roles for the public relations activities of the Commission.
In fact, the Mississippi agency's two functions frequently overlapped. In 1966, when Mississippi's white power structure pulled out all the stops to cripple existing Head Start programs and redirect federal funds to new organizations that whites could control, the Sovereignty Commission marshaled its cadre of newspaper editors for the cause.
Some background from Susan Klopfer's book, Where Rebels Roost:
The Child Development Group of Mississippi (CDGM) was one of the country's pioneer Head Start programs, providing poor children with medical care, hot meals and preschool training. Some employment was also provided for several hundred local people who worked as teachers and helpers. So of course it was target for destruction by the planter hegemony. . . .
All of Mississippi's Congressional representatives voted against funding the poverty programs in the first place. The Jackson Daily News compared such programs with those in "Soviet Russia . . . and Hitler's Germany."
Head Start and other poverty programs represented "the most subtle mediums for instilling the acceptance of racial integration and ultimate mongrelization ever perpetrated in this country," the JDN editorialized.
This attitude was shared across the state, as several CDGM workers were shot at by racists; local schools would not rent their buildings and buses to the program; and in one Delta town, Anguilla, plantation owners would not allow sharecroppers' children to enroll. Klansmen there burned a cross in front of the Head Start center to make their point.
Even though the new educational program was seeing successes, many white state political leaders tried their best to destroy CDGM, charging financial mismanagement. US Senator John C. Stennis was contracted and he demanded that Sargent Shriver, head of the US Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), withhold funds. (548)
And that's where Jack Tannehill and his colleagues came in. On October 7, 1966, Sovereignty Commission Director Erle Johnston wrote a memo to Martin Fraley, Director of the Mississippi state branch of the Office of Economic Opportunity, about a telegram sending campaign to shift funds from CDGM to a new state agency, Mississippi Action for Progress (MAP).
In line with your suggestion, we made contacts on Thursday, October 6, to have a variety of telegrams sent to Sargent Shriver supporting the new Action for Progress committee in Mississippi.
We composed telegrams and read them over the telephone and all were supposed to have been sent by Thursday evening. We made our contacts chiefly in those areas where CDGM had operated headstart [sic] schools.
The contacts were state senator E.K. Collins and thirteen newspaper executives, including Jack Tannehill at the Neshoba Democrat. Johnston indicated that the anti-CDGM telegram sending campaign was suggested by Fraley. Fraley was director of the state arm of the federal agency responsible for administering President Johnson's War on Poverty programs, including Head Start.
Before taking his post as director of the Mississippi Office of Economic Opportunity, Fraley was chairman of the Mississippi parole board. Frank Barber, a well connected political operative, who held high political offices in Mississippi and also worked for infamous racist and Mississippi Senator James Eastland in DC, characterized Fraley as "a man of all work-advisor, strategist, technician, tactician" for Governor Paul Johnson. The governor of Mississippi was, ex-officio, chairman of the Sovereignty Commission.
The telegram campaign against CDGM was suggested by the top advisor for the Sovereignty Commission's chairman to the director of the agency, Erle Johnston, who, in turn, asked Jack Tannnehill and his colleagues to participate.
[A]fter two years of investigations, surveillance, firings, audits, press attacks, closures and threats, CDGM died in December 1967. Mississippi Action for Progress or MAP gained control over most of CDGM's funding and projects. (Klopfer, 549)
Klopfer quotes John Dittmer on MAP, saying, "the poverty program in Mississippi had divided the black community into warring factions, often pitting the poor men and women who had become politicized in the early 1960s against the old, traditional, middle-class leadership.
Divide and conquer. Bait and switch. Keep some (less militant) Black people visible in the newly configured MAP-controlled Head Start programs, while obtaining more of all that good federal money for the benefit of white folks. I believe researchers will find some interesting results if they compare how many whites and how many Blacks got Head Start jobs and contracts under CDGM and then under MAP.
There has been some popular debate about whether Jack Tannehill was speaking about the Klan or about civil rights workers when, in an April 9, 1964 editorial, he wrote, "Outsiders who come in here and try to stir up trouble should be dealt with in a manner they won't forget." James E. Prince III, is the only person who has seriously claimed in public that Tannehill was not threatening civil rights workers but rather telling the Klan to get out of Neshoba County.
As usual, I think Prince is full of it, but focusing the historical debate on this one anecdote is a way to avoid the history of white supremacy in Neshoba County and in Mississippi as a whole. Jack Tannehill didn't just incite his readers to perpetrate violence against civil rights workers. He was active in the work of the white power structure to keep resources out of the hands of African Americans. He was also active in the white power structure's public relations campaign to sell to the world a fictional image of Mississippi while Black children starved and white, racist murderers roamed free.
"We challenge our fellow citizens to join us in an honest appraisal of the past."
The Philadelphia Coalition
June 21, 2005