It is widely known that in the 1950s and 1960s, the Mississippi state government spied on civil rights activists using a racist agency called the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission. That Commission hired spies to infiltrate the civil rights movement and thwart their activities, including registering African Americans to vote. Curiously, some of the spies hired were themselves African American.
Percy Greene, a conservative African-American newspaper editor, became an important contact person who the Commission relied upon heavily to help it work towards its aim.
Greene was a civil rights leader himself, who was an advocate for equal rights and justice and spoke widely about the intimidation Black people suffered at the polls. Yet, he hurt the Black community in Mississippi when he became a paid informant for the Sovereignty Commission. Being the founder and editor of The Jackson Advocate, the largest African-American publication in Mississippi, his publication was relied upon to assist the Sovereignty Commission to perform its mandate.
Essentially, his Black newspaper was subsidized by the Sovereignty Commission and made to publish unflattering articles about civil rights leaders including Martin Luther King, Jr. What’s worse, scores of the people informed on got killed, including Medgar Evers. Evers was assassinated in 1963 in the driveway outside his home in Jackson, Mississippi.
So why would Greene go against his own people and work with a deadly institution like the Sovereignty Commission?
Born on September 7, 1897, in Jackson, Mississippi, Greene joined the U.S. Army at the age of 17 before organizing the National Association of Negro War Veterans in 1927, which served Black veterans who were denied admission into veterans’ organizations. Greene in 1926 studied law under a Jackson attorney but failed the bar exam following a disagreement with a White man. He later worked as a journalist for two Jackson newspapers, the Negro Citizen and the Mississippi Enterprise before founding The Jackson Advocate in 1939. People in Mississippi, mostly Black people, got their news from his paper. For the next four decades, he was its owner, editor, and publisher, receiving several awards and recognitions in the early part of his journalism, including being invited to the inauguration of Pres. Harry S. Truman.
But by the 1950s, Greene started having issues with the new group of civil rights leaders that arrived on the scene, seeing those leaders as “brash and bold” individuals who were intruding into a “quiet, polite society,” according to one account. Opposed to the NAACP and many civil rights organizations that were introduced during that period, Greene sided with Mississippi’s small Black middle class who were all for voting rights and equal opportunities for Blacks yet wanted segregation to continue. According to Mississippi Encylopedia, “Greene subscribed to Booker T. Washington’s accommodationist philosophy and believed that blacks and whites could live peacefully in separate but equal environments and that African American advancement depended on maintaining southern whites’ goodwill.”
By the late 1950s, Greene had started working with the Sovereignty Commission. He was paid handsomely to spy, and having the trust of many Black people in the community who relied on his paper for information made his work easier. Being a civil rights leader himself, he had key access to NAACP and civil rights functions where he would conduct interviews for his newspaper and send the transcripts to the Commission. His White financiers saw him as an honest man while his paper The Jackson Advocate was used by the Commission to carry out its mandate, even writing editorials under Greene’s byline.
“So, what happened in one case is that the commission decided they wanted to smear Martin Luther King, and so they wrote a story, gave it to The Jackson Advocate to publish verbatim, which it published verbatim in The Jackson Advocate, which The Clarion-Ledger then picked up and attributed to The Jackson Advocate, because that way it looked more legitimate, I guess, you know, for lack of a better term, because a black newspaper printed it before The Clarion-Ledger…,” said Jerry Mitchell, an investigative reporter for The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi.
Even when Greene decided to support 1966 civil rights activist James Meredith, he had to rescind that decision as his White financiers avoided him, putting his company in financial distress. At the end of the day, the Sovereignty Commission generated more than 160,000 pages of reports. Many of the reports were shared with local police departments whose officers belonged to the Ku Klux Klan, eventually contributing to the deaths of not only Evers but Freedom Summer activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner in the 1960s, a report noted.
As the actual role of the Sovereignty Commission came to light following the release of sensitive files, Greene’s back-stabbing role also became known to all, including the Black community. But sources say he was “never held accountable” for his actions. He died on April 16, 1977.
“One of the reasons and one of the motivations for some of these spies was money,” said investigative journalist Mitchell. “They were being paid. Percy Greene, who was an editor for the Jackson Advocate, was actually sent up north and paid to speak. And he and other speakers like him would say things like, “Oh, you know, we love Mississippi. We love segregation. We love the way it is right now.” And so, the idea behind this is not just spies, but also spreading propaganda, which, of course, like I said, was paid for.”