A recently discovered document showing that a Mississippi State commission sought to discredit black civil rights workers in 1964 by labeling them “homos and oddballs” was the subject of a D.C. panel discussion on Monday.
The panel, which convened at the city’s African American Civil War Museum, was one of a series of events associated with the March on Washington Film Festival, an annual event that chronicles the impact of the 1964 civil rights March on Washington organized by Martin Luther King Jr.
The document discussed by the panel was a five-page confidential report prepared by the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, an official state entity created in 1956 to preserve racial segregation and help resist efforts by the black civil rights movement to end racial discrimination.
The report says it was written by a commission “investigator” in July 1964. It was discovered by the Mattachine Society of Washington, an LGBT rights group that specializes in searching for documents showing how government agencies and officials in the U.S. persecuted LGBT people in past years.
Charles Francis, the group’s president who played a lead role in unearthing the commission report, served as moderator of the July 17 panel session called “Civil Rights and College Activism.”
Francis opened the session by explaining that the report in question outlined how one of the commission’s investigators targeted Dr. Earnest A. Smith, president of the historically black Rust College in the small town of Holly Springs, Miss., for allegedly being sympathetic to “homos.”
The investigator claimed to have found evidence from a network of informants that Smith allowed civil rights workers to use the college campus as their base of operations for a voter registration drive for African-American residents of the state.
Most of the civil rights workers were black college students along with white student supporters who were members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, known as SNCC. SNCC was among several civil rights groups that took part in a series of protests and voter registration drives in defiance of state authorities that became known as “Freedom Summer” of 1964.
Among the panelists joining Francis at Monday’s session was former D.C. Council member Frank Smith, who was a 20-year-old college student and SNCC organizer in Mississippi in 1964 when the Sovereignty Commission conducted its investigation of Rust College.
Other panelists included Bill Luckett, former mayor of Clarksdale, Miss., and Larry Rubin, a SNCC field organizer in Mississippi at that time.
Among other things, the Sovereignty Commission report denounced Earnest Smith for allowing the college to become “a place for instructors who are homosexuals and racial agitators.”
The report says “Informant No. 3 stated that Smith is a known liar and ladies’ man and it has been rumored that Smith might have other queer sexual impulses.”
Francis said research conducted by Mattachine Society of Washington shows that Smith was not gay and remained happily married for 75 years to a former Rust College librarian. Smith died in 2009 at the age of 96.
Much to the dismay of most Rust College students and the civil rights workers who he welcomed to the campus, the commission persuaded the college’s Board of Trustees to remove Smith from his job as president on July 1, 1964, one day before President Lyndon Johnson signed the famous Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Frank Smith told the audience during Monday’s panel session that he and other SNCC organizers knew there were some gay professors at Rust College as well as gay students and gay SNCC members.
“None of us had any problem with that,” said Smith, who noted that his roommate at the Rust campus during the summer of 1964 SNCC activities was gay.
“The fact that he was gay didn’t bother me for a moment,” Smith told the Washington Blade after the panel discussion. “He wasn’t interested in me and I wasn’t interested in him and we both went our separate ways,” Smith said when it came to romantic relationships.
Frank Smith and panelist Larry Rubin said most civil rights workers knew that Bayard Rustin, one of the lead organizers of the 1964 march on Washington, was gay.
Both said the attempt by the commission to impede SNCC’s voter registration efforts by resorting to homophobia failed.
They called Rust College President Earnest Smith a courageous figure who played an important role in advancing the civil rights movement during the tumultuous Freedom Summer of 1964.